Tuesday, February 28, 2017

In Theaters: GET OUT (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lil Rel Howery, Richard Herd, Erika Alexander, Trey Burvant. (R, 104 mins)

GET OUT is getting the best reviews of any 2017 release thus far, and when a genre film shows any degree of insight and razor-sharp social commentary, it's easy to overrate it. But GET OUT is one of the best and smartest fright flicks to come along in a while--caustic, uncomfortable, and refusing to pull punches, but remembering to be entertaining and witty at the same time. It deftly balances the majority of its time being genuinely unnerving but also with more than its share of funny moments, some engineered to make you laugh out loud and others designed to make you uneasy. The directing debut of KEY AND PEELE's Jordan Peele, who also scripted, GET OUT stars Daniel Kaluuya (SICARIO and the "Fifteen Million Merits" episode of BLACK MIRROR) as Chris Washington, a 26-year-old photographer who's about to go away for the weekend to meet the parents of Rose Armitage (GIRLS' Allison Willliams), his girlfriend of four months. He's a bit nervous--he's black, she's white, and she hasn't told them--but she assures him that they won't have a problem with him. The ride there includes a collision with a deer and an unpleasant run-in with a local cop (Chris is quick to comply, realizing it doesn't take much for a situation to escalate from zero to Trayvon Martin), but once at the estate of the wealthy Armitages, things are pleasant if awkward. Rose's mom Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist who wants to hypnotize Chris to help him quit smoking, and her neurologist dad Dean (Bradley Whitford) means well but tries too hard to ingratiate himself, with everything from repeatedly calling Chris "My man," to numerous mentions that he "would've voted for Obama a third time," and asking how long Chris and Rose's "thaaang" has been going on.

Chris has a strange dinner conversation with Rose's brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) where Jeremy tells him he has the physique to be a monster MMA fighter. He's also taken aback by the presence of two oddly-behaving black employees--groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel)--who aren't very good at conversation and have dead, vacant stares in their eyes. Dean says he hired them to help out when his parents were ailing and after they died, he didn't have the heart to let them go ("I know how it looks," Dean says). The Armitages hold a party for all of their wealthy and almost across-the-board elderly friends, all of whom try too hard to appeal to Chris, whether it's feeling his biceps, mentioning how much they like Tiger Woods, or making winking assumptions about how well-endowed he must be. Chris seems to be used to well-intentioned whites trying too hard but something isn't sitting well with him. He believes Missy hypnotized him without his knowledge and he recognizes Logan (Lakeith Stanfield), the young black companion of a 30-years-older white woman, as Andre, an old acquaintance of a friend of a friend who went missing six months ago. Chris takes a pic of him to send to his dog-sitting buddy Rod (a scene-stealing Lil Rel Howell) but he forgets to turn off the flash and it causes a brief seizure where Logan, who dresses like an old man and has no idea how to fist-bump, snaps out of his stupor and seems to briefly take on another personality until he's attended to by Missy. Rod theorizes that "rich white people are brainwashing brothers into becoming sex slaves," and while Chris laughs it off, his paranoia grows more intense by the minute and he can't ignore his gut feeling that something is very wrong here.

Of course, something is wrong but GET OUT doesn't quite go in the direction the trailers and your initial assumptions might indicate. It invokes a few classics from the 1970s, from THE WICKER MAN to MESSIAH OF EVIL and one in particular that's too much of a spoiler to mention. Despite its modern themes, it actually feels like a 1970s movie in both its working in of social issues and the emphasis on building suspense instead of focusing on gore and cheap jump scares (though a couple of jump scares here work quite well). In the end, GET OUT ends up being more about class division than racial injustice, a scathing rebuke not just of white privilege but also the entitlement of the wealthy for whom money--and people--are no object. No one is immune from criticism--even Chris is shown time and again to be a pushover and someone who doesn't want to rock the boat. Peele's script piles on the unease and the dread until it's almost suffocating, broken up by Rod's comic relief that's actually a welcome breather from the choking tension (Rod's Jeffrey Dahmer rant is one for the ages). Performances are pitch perfect across the board, whether it's Whitford's vaguely passive-aggressive glad-handing as Dean or Gabriel's often heartbreaking turn as Georgina, whose constant smile always seems a little too forced, masking a sadness that isn't lost on Chris. Alternately frightening, funny, and thought-provoking, with the kind of crowd-pleasing finale that horror movies used to know how to deliver, GET OUT isn't a quite an instant classic, but it's one of the stronger genre offerings of late, and one that establishes Peele, already a respected comedian and satirist, as a serious filmmaker to watch.

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