28 February 2017
Jordan Peele wrote and directed something that, by all means and practices, shouldn’t exist.
I say shouldn’t not because I disliked Get Out or because I don’t want it to exist, but because of the time and circumstances of the world in which it was made, the odds of it being made were nil.
Let’s face it, the Key & Peele movie Keanu was a solid comedy. As a fan of the series, I was definitely hooked. Drug dealers, kittens, Anna Faris, extended action sequences – it’s all a bizarre tableau underscored by Keegan Michael-Key’s hilarious babbling. But it isn’t as coherent as it is randomized. Much of the movie is nigh-direct pandering to the fans of the sketch show, the rest is a mix of tropes, memes and references that are just plain outré.
But then comes along Get Out, a horror flick that is so meticulous, so fantastically moribund and creepifying and just what-the-fuck-did-I-just-watch-ifying, the fact that it comes from the mind of a comedian, a seasoned veteran of MadTV, Comedy Central and Obama YouTube sketches is stupefying. It has long been known that Peele was responsible for some of the darker jokes, the edgier sketches that aired on Key & Peele, and that he has a long-standing affection for horror movies. Like other black horror directors, he approaches the genre sideways, coming not from dramas or TV serials but from comedy, possibly the form most opposite of horror.
Think about it – in comedy, laughter immerses you in the joke. For horror films, laughter removes the immersion, it takes you out of the terror of the moment. Yet both require laughter, to certain extents, to succeed in their work. Too many laughs at one joke sets the bar higher for the next one, while too few means the movie isn’t funny. Too many laughs in a scary movie means it’s not scary, and too few means the audience has fewer parts to relate to. There is a sweet spot in the horror genre, a key note just shy of cult status and a touch above “so bad it’s good.” Laughter creates verisimilitude, the feeling of resembling reality. Nothing is more crucial to the success of the horror movie than this notion. Nothing determines whether a horror film fails or succeeds on its own merits as much as its dependence on being able to laugh and cry and scream all within the same scene. One man’s pain is another man’s sick joke is another man’s drama.
So it would seem that Jordan Peele has hit the sweet spot of the horror universe. Get Out is, first and foremost, a black horror movie. It displays a world and a people utterly repulsive and morally offensive, but it is designed to give voice to the fears, both rational and irrational, of the black community. The moment with the police officer early on in the movie is the most obvious one, given the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. But the very first scene, where Andre walks alone in the suburban neighborhood and feels creeped out, has a foreboding sense of doom, sets a subtle and powerful tone that cannot be ignored. When Jeremy pulls up in the car beside him, Andre mutters to himself not to do anything, he’s not going to get caught up in something. He deliberately tries walking the other way, to avoid a confrontation, and a confrontation is what he gets. Given the number of unarmed young black men who have been killed in seemingly peaceful neighborhoods in recent years, this is a huge fear to start with, the equivalent of firing a starting pistol at a race, but using an AK-47 instead of a revolver.
And there’s nothing to laugh at here, at Andre’s plight. The context, the purpose of the movie is still shrouded from us, hidden from our view. The laughs come later, some in tender moments between Chris and Rose, some at ludicrous lines from Rod (read: any scene with Rod in it is comedy gold), or even some incredibly awkward and clichéd racist-not-racist moments. As we delve deeper into the story of the Armitage house and their passive-aggressive behavior, some fans of The West Wing giggle uncontrollably, wondering why in God’s name does Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) have a neuroscience degree. We all find the big gathering of the old white people a little comic, as they titter and make not-so-subtle remarks and backhanded compliments and all the standard tropes of WASP society. Myself, I was nearly brought to guffaws by the number of mixed-race couples in the audience when the house lights were raised at the end (my girlfriend, who is white, was not so amused when I pointed this out, perhaps a touch too vocally).
But all of this comedy is underscored by horror. Walter’s exercise at night becomes revealed as Grandpa’s failure to get over his ancient loss to Jesse Owens. The bingo game/silent auction is a terrifying exercise in complicity, white silence and moral turpitude, on top of the fact that it’s a damn slave auction. And, on the heels of discovering Chris’s phone charging problems, when Georgina’s façade slips for an instant and the little piece of her that’s still in there comes out of the “sunken place” to shed a little tear, to quaver for an instant and begin chanting “no, no,” we the viewers begin to find that the horror is all too real, the terror comes too close to home, the fear begins to go from the screen to our hearts.
I told you, something like this shouldn’t exist. Comedy and horror should be anathema, and yet we find them closely interwoven. Scary movies don’t score 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I feel as though Get Out has come to us from beyond the stars, an alien entity that holds a mirror to our world, to our concerns and tensions. And such an entity becomes familiar to us, it fits into our genres and gets murmurs of praise. It lingers in the backs of our minds, keeping us thinking about every little line of dialogue, the smallest cinematographic cues, the grating violins and cellos backing up the scares. I shouldn’t feel close to what scares me, and that is exactly what Get Out does. It brings the fear home, it makes it real. And you can’t run from what’s real.