Saturday, February 25, 2017

GET OUT - Under Your Skin

I've long asserted that the genres of horror and comedy are beholden to similar skill sets when it comes to their effective execution, primarily that the ability to build and release tension/expectations by means of either laughs or scares (or, in some cases, both) is absolutely essential.

If all Jordan Peele's debut film had going for it was a basic grasp of these skills (honed over years of fantastic sketch comedy on his and Keegan-Michael Key's "Key and Peele" run) coupled with the brilliant premise that is Get Out's central hook, he could have more or less coasted on that. But Peele shows up with a wicked, knowing smile, a thirst to play for keeps, and a surprising grasp of cinematic language for a first-time director.

And he absolutely CRUSHES IT. Get Out is a stone-cold modern horror classic, and best film of its kind since The Cabin in the Woods.

Opening with a "oner" that would be worthy of Spielberg, Get Out immediately aims to place the audience in the realm of rambling houses, well-kept grounds, and woodsy street names that make up modern suburbia and immediately make them as uncomfortable as possible in this setting. The coding is apparent once we meet Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya in a jaw-dropping leading performance), a photographer who's going to meet his girlfriend's parents for the first time. As you've probably seen from the trailers, Rose (a mesmerizing Allison Williams) hasn't told her parents she's dating a black man, and this makes Chris nervous, even though she insists that "they're not racist."

Even if this weren't a horror film, you can imagine how things would go...awry from here.

But when Chris meets Dean and Missy Armitage, they're not at all upset about their daughter's choice of beau. In fact, they seem a little too eager to tell Chris how forward-thinking and tolerant they are and how they feel privileged to experience another person's culture. Bradley Whitford is practically stunt casting for anyone who remembers him from The West Wing and is as delightful as you'd hope playing both into and against that "type," but it's Catherine Keener who really gets to turn the screws as the "things just don't feel right"-ness starts to pile on. And that's before Chris meets Rose's off-center younger brother and the family's black servants.

The film pulls a double act of both positioning Chris as a brilliant audience surrogate because of the horror genre's immediate ability to make viewers sympathize with any character that starts to feel uncomfortable with Obvious Horror Movie Shit once it starts going down, and by using this surrogacy as a mirror. By also coding said OHMS as explicitly tied to modern suburbia and supposedly well-meaning white people is a brilliant play on the film's target audience (read: supposedly well-meaning white people). The appropriation of non-white culture by white people who value the trappings of said culture more than the humanity of the people who created them is at the forefront of this film's Big Ideas, and telling more about the places where it takes them once the OHMS well and truly hits the fan would be to give away too much.

However, know that once the film breaks from uncomfortable suspense thriller into genre-savvy full-on horror mode, it rockets forward and doesn't stop. Peele's visual skills as a director come out obviously early-on in the way he puts distance (or invades the audience's space) during key interactions, but his skills as a writer almost shine even more in the film's final act, where seemingly offhandedly-mentioned character details become big plot points and moments that you thought were paid off already get brought back again for a final kick.

For all that, as sly and sharp as the movie is, it's also ludicrously approachable. Peele's comedy skills make no secret of themselves, either in wry asides or big laughs that punctuate the film just enough to let the audience breathe, and the overall tone is a high-wire balancing act. It's provocative without being nastily incendiary, violent without being gruesome, and harrowing without being indulgent. It's easy to imagine the exploitation version of this, and it would still be a cracking time at the theater, but Jordan Peele has no intention of settling for that.

And in doing so, he's crafted a brilliantly unsettling horror film that is both a wild crowd-pleaser and a pointed mirror for a good portion of said crowd to gaze into. Do yourself a favor and take a look.

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