Jordan Peele’s satirical horror Get Out fails to frighten by addressing America’s race politics on the surface rather than probing its subconscious fears. By Christos Tsiolkas.
Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’
Often the choice of what movies to review is a matter of timing and opportunity, and often it is a matter of wanting to champion a film that deserves greater attention. But there are occasions when a popular film is so indelibly of the zeitgeist that critics feel an urgency to review it. The new satirical horror Get Out, the first feature directed by Jordan Peele, is such a movie. A reworking of the 1975 cult classic The Stepford Wives, and inspired by the politics coalescing around the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, this low-budget film has garnered astonishingly positive reviews and become a box-office smash. I was very eager to see it and to write about it. But on leaving the screening I was decidedly underwhelmed. I felt churlish knowing that I couldn’t join in the seemingly unanimous praise for the film. Its heart is definitely in the right place. But that, in itself, is not enough to make a good film.
The original The Stepford Wives, based on an Ira Levin novel and directed by Bryan Forbes, was a paranoid feminist horror that envisaged a suburban world where men acquiesced to having their wives turned into robots. Their free will and their intellect extinguished, the women existed solely as domestic and sexual servants. Get Out begins when Chris Washington, played by Daniel Kaluuya, a successful young African-American photographer who lives in gentrified Brooklyn with his European-American girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), is invited to a weekend at her parents’ home. Rose’s father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), and her mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), live in what seems an exclusive rural enclave. Though ostensibly liberal, the Armitages’ property is plantation chic and the only black people visible are the maid, Georgina, played by Betty Gabriel, and the groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson). Chris’s interactions with Georgina and Walter are the first indications that something sinister is going on. The staff doesn’t seem to live in Obama’s America but in the rigidly and racially segregated world of classic Hollywood studio films. Chris is invited to a lawn party and meets another black person, Logan (Lakeith Stanfield), who seems bemused and uninterested in Chris’s attempts to forge a relationship based on their shared racial identity. It’s when Chris takes a photograph of Logan, and the man experiences a seizure, that the full horror of what might be occurring in this idyllic rural retreat first dawns on Chris and the audience.
Jordan Peele’s background is in television sketch comedy and the film is on its surest footing as satire, gleefully sending up white liberal guilt and anxiety as well as playfully unsettling an audience’s expectation of what behaviour is “black” and what is “white”. He has shrewdly cast Whitford and Williams in the leading white roles, actors who are identified with uber-liberal TV shows Girls and The West Wing. It’s also a smart choice to cast Keener, a superlative actor whose work has been largely in independent American cinema, as the cold and malevolent matriarch. But the film fails as horror: it just doesn’t scare us, and I suspect that part of the problem lies precisely in Peele’s sketch comedy roots.
Get Out is crisply shot by Australian cinematographer Toby Oliver, and the editing, by Gregory Plotkin, is precise and unfussy. Oliver has worked on films such as Wolf Creek 2, and Plotkin has cut much of the Paranormal Activity series, and there’s an efficiency and vigour to their work that means the film sustains momentum even once we’re aware of how ludicrous the plot is. But Peele, who also wrote the screenplay, shows little skill for suspense and, though the running time is blessedly compact, the middle of the film lags. There are precious few surprises in the script, and the Armitage family is so clearly unhinged that the audience is always aware of what’s coming next. We’re just waiting for the horror to escalate. When it comes, it’s proficiently executed but the lack of tension robs us of the visceral catharsis that is integral to our enjoyment of terror. There’s no shock in the mayhem and little pleasure in the revenge.
But there’s a deeper problem than Peele’s inexperience and that is his reluctance to commit to fully exploring the racial terrors and ambivalences that clearly underlie Get Out. For a horror film to work, to truly scare us, it needs to tap into our most subconscious and hidden fears. The original The Stepford Wives was similarly schlocky, and it, too, suffered from an interminable second act. But released after the cultural explosion of second-wave feminism, and set in an explicitly gender-segregated American suburbia, there was a potency to its paranoia, in the notion that men might just want to reduce women to sexual chattels. Contemporary racism – apart from degenerate outliers such as Daesh or those on the extreme fringes of the fascist far right – is no longer about a dominant race or people keeping others in perpetual servitude but more about the desire that the “other” completely vanish, that it be made to disappear. That’s a great subject for a modern horror film because it touches on a rage and fear that so many of us experience regardless of how we are positioned along the fault lines of race and ethnicity. Such anger and suspicions fuel the increasingly separatist trajectory of contemporary race politics. Get Out has pace enough that we can ignore the ridiculous plotting while it is unfolding, but thinking back on it immediately afterwards the whole film falls apart. In opposition to the logic in The Stepford Wives, it makes no sense that racists would want to surround themselves with black people. It’s as if Peele is unsure of whether he wants to explore the history of past racism, which would make the plantation setting credible, or if he wants to explore the race frictions currently poisoning American society. That contradictory tension is never resolved in the narrative and so the film has no emotional urgency or weight. The actors are left floundering, trying to stay true to situations that don’t make sense.
Peele is clearly intelligent and his reluctance to explore deeper currents of racial fear and mistrust must be deliberate. The most unsettling moments in Get Out have to do with Chris’s struggle to work out how to be and to behave in an alien environment – the white world that doesn’t want him and wishes he’d just disappear. The best scene in the film occurs when he is questioning Georgina about her complacent acceptance of her role as a servant within the household. Betty Gabriel is terrific in this scene, her poise cracking under Chris’s grilling and her face hinting at the suppressed despair and rage that comes from having to constantly perform a version of unthreatening blackness. Stanfield, too, is excellent in conveying the terrible weight and burden of such “performance”. But for these moments not to exist in isolation, I wish the filmmakers had made more of Chris’s own anxieties, of his fear, say, that the other black characters might be critical of his status as bourgeois black man dating a white woman. In the film’s weakest plot contrivance, he’s given a best friend, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), whose sole purpose is to provide street cred, to authenticate Chris’s blackness. Every time Howery appears, the film dies a little. The humour isn’t strong enough in the writing for his character and, possibly because of the director’s inexperience, he is allowed to overact woefully. That’s true, too, for Caleb Landry Jones, who plays Rose’s brother, Jeremy, and whose grimly ugly performance signals the Armitage family’s eccentricities too early on. But Jeremy is largely peripheral, whereas Howery’s character undermines our response to Chris. Kaluuya is an attractive and thoughtful actor, and my sense is that he is both capable and willing to give Chris greater complexity. It’s a real pity and a directorial fault he isn’t given that opportunity.
Rewatching The Stepford Wives recently I was struck by how important Paula Prentiss’s performance is to that film. Playing heroine Katharine Ross’s best friend, Prentiss is edgy, abrasive, but also very funny and full of sassiness. When the audience realises she’s now a robot, we feel the force of a misogynistic desire that would turn grown women into dolls. That moment of realisation has stayed with me since I first saw the film as a child. Watching it again, it is still chilling. There’s not an equivalent shock in Get Out, and for the emotional moments that come closest, in the playing from Gabriel and Stanfield, they are undercut because they don’t organically arise from the story we are watching. In those instances, the real world intrudes and we know that it is much more frightening and much more dangerous than anything we’re watching on the screen.
The Stepford Wives had a cynical ending, one that seemed highly appropriate for a nation that had just emerged from the cultural carnage of the Vietnam era. It also reflected something about the pessimism of radical politics dealing with the comedown after the Summer of Love. There’s a moment when I thought Get Out would go there, too: that it might just trust that an audience doesn’t require resolution when coming out of a cinema or when switching off a film on their device. God knows, in the post-Obama hangover, the US must be used to it. But Peele can’t go there. He wanted to explore racism and racial fury but he also wanted to make a film that everybody “likes”. In that, he’s perfectly of the zeitgeist.
PHOTOGRAPHY Balancing the Bandwagon: Eliza Hutchison
Murray White Room, Melbourne, May 19-June 17
FASHION Fashion Week Australia
Venues throughout Sydney, May 14-19
THEATRE Wild Bore
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, May 17-June 4
CULTURE Kerenewek Lowender: Copper Coast Cornish Festival
Venues throughout Moonta, Wallaroo and Kadina, South Australia, May 19-21
VISUAL ART Anish Kapoor: Untitled 2006-2007
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, May 14-July 29
MUSIC Blues on Broadbeach
Venues throughout the Gold Coast, May 18-21
CULTURE Ord Valley Muster
Venues throughout the Kimberly region, Western Australia, May 19-28
DESIGN Resonant Objects
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until May 13
CINEMA Human Rights Arts and Film Festival
ACMI, Melbourne, until May 18
Dendy Cinemas, Sydney, May 23-27
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2017 as "Out of Stepford".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.