Sometimes the instinctual filing of a film into a single genre proves woefully inadequate. Get Out, the feature directorial debut of Jordan Peele, is a horror film. On the surface of it, that is clear and almost indisputable. It moves with rhythms familiar from a fleet of jolting predecessors, down to the particulars of a long drive down a highway book-ended by dense forest and a comic relief best pal who seems poised to somehow save the day. There’s a haunted past and a slow accumulation of menace.
As a horror film, Get Out is proficient and engaging. It is also dogged by a few vexing plot holes and falls prey to that most common of faults, an ending of escalating mayhem that feels a little anticlimactic after a few reels of splendid dread. At times, the mechanics of the narrative are more spirited than convincing.
But then, Get Out is much more than a horror film. Peele, who also wrote the screenplay, in engaged in a far trickier game. There is satire at play here, but even that observation wobbles in its accuracy. To see those veins in the film is to transfer over too much knowledge of Peele’s professional history in crafting comedy sketches, most notably as one half of the duo that gives the show Key & Peele its name. Instead, Peele takes inklings of satire and spins them into slyly wrenching drama. There are plenty of genre films that deliver their dutifully deployed tropes under cover of subtextual commentary. Not many take the extra step to find the troubled emotions at the heart of whatever social ill is addressed.
In the film, Daniel Kaluuya pays Chris, a Brooklyn photographer who travels upstate to meet the family of his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). The interactions follow patterns that Chris anticipated against Rose’s assurances otherwise. The father (Bradley Whitford, perfectly cast) repeatedly tries to prove his coolness with the interracial romance, the mother (Catherine Keener) stiffly registers discomfort couched in superficial understanding, and the brother (Caleb Landry Jones) drunkenly offer challenges. Rose professes mortification and apologizes, but the casual indignities continue and start to grow suspicious, as if somehow informed by malicious intent.
To a degree, Peele relies on the tension of an everyman thrown into strange, alarming circumstances, a structure that has been serving directors well since at least the first time Alfred Hitchcock twisted the metaphorical knife. The impact, though, is heightened by the significant detail that Chris isn’t every man. He’s a black man in a privileged, white community, and his ability to astutely identify warning signs is consistently compromised by an deeply embedded compulsion to just get along. He retreats after his raised concerns are met with skepticism. The normal horror movie problem of a protagonist who takes a ridiculously long time to acknowledge reality-bending danger is solved by the simple establishment — in a very strong scene with a highway patrolman — that avoiding confrontation is a socially-imposed default mode for Chris.
So I circle back around to my original thought. Is Get Out a horror film? Despite all my hesitations to declare it one, maybe it does fit the bill after all. Maybe it’s simply that the scariest things don’t exist in the shadows, but instead march along in open daylight, imposing hostile, demeaning authority out of little more than heinously perpetuated habit.