Horror movies are the medium’s most express conduit into our collective anxieties. Nuclear annihilation, creeping Soviet subversion, and anti-communist hysteria loomed over Eisenhower-era cinema; race and Vietnam flow through Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; and the resurgent conservativism of the Reagan years spawned a slew of teenage slasher flicks. Even the earliest recognizable examples, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, have been positioned as responses to or instances of anti-Semitism and the threat of fascism.
That last reading emerged about a quarter century following those movies’ releases. Horror is, by design, a visceral enterprise, and its underpinning motivations don’t always manifest until well after the threat has faded. Boogeymen, it seems, are on a time release.
But every so often, a social issue roots itself so pervasively, simmers at such a high temperature, that it’s primed to boil over at any minute. In the mid ‘60s, years before the generation gap ignited in Chicago and Kent State, one of that decade’s best movies offered a puckish release valve. Rosemary’s Baby, about a pregnant twentysomething whose septuagenarian neighbors may or may not be plotting to hijack her uterus and conjure the antichrist, fused horror and satire to stretch the culture war to absurd extremes. It’s a masterwork of delirious social commentary: don’t trust anyone over 30, it says, because people over 30 worship Satan.
50 years later, we’re at a similar breaking point. Following an unending deluge of police brutality, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and a presidential election that doubled as a referendum on the promise and progress of the Obama administration, we need another Rosemary-style release; a caustic sendup of contemporary race relations feels more appropriate and necessary than ever.
That’s not an easy assignment, but Jordan Peele offers just that sort of caricature with Get Out. Just as nobody mistook Rosemary’s target, Get Out employs an archetypical scenario. We meet Chris and Rose, a lovey-dovey young couple, as they prepare for a weekend trip to meet Rose’s well-to-do parents. Chris is black, Rose is white; as they pack, Chris expresses some not-unearned reticence (“Do they know I’m black?”), but is shot down by Rose’s common-sense progressivism. “What am I supposed to say? That my black boyfriend is coming to visit?” Plus, she insists, her liberal pedigree is thorough; her father would’ve welcomed Obama’s third term. During the drive upstate, she demonstrates an activist streak after a cop unjustifiably demands to see Chris’s ID.
Despite being relegated to background player in his own fight, Chris see Rose’s strident self-assurance as a turn-on. He brushes off omens that pile at a fever pitch, including the arrival of Rose’s MMA-obsessed brother, who has Chris in a headlock during their first conversation. Despite their gestures to liberal bona fides, something is clearly rotten with Rose’s family, and Chris’s unlikely reactions to increasingly outrageous behavior position Get Out as more satiric than horrific, even as the movie insists on emerging as the latter.
But both satire and horror need bite, and Get Out never embraces its acerbic potential. As horror, it tips its hand early and often, mistaking reverence for subversion. (There are riffs on memorable sequences from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Rosemary’s Baby; even the villain’s name sounds awfully like that movie’s patriarch.)
Peele, who started in sketch comedy, fares better with parody. The family’s typical Lefty reaction to Chris’s smoking habit—part disappointment, part condescension, all righteous intimidation—is a terrific swipe, and Peele recreates one of Rosemary’s Baby‘s best meta-textual gags by casting icons of the contemporary Left (Catherine Keener, Allison Williams from “Girls,” and “The West Wing’s” Bradley Whitford) as virulent racists. All the pieces are in place for a penetrating takedown of post-Obama hypocrisy, which is perhaps why such a small-scale effort feels like a betrayal when it reveals an underlying gutlessness. Instead of embracing the inevitability of its premise and confronting profound injustices, the movie finally settles for an inoffensive crack at the TSA, a target so facile that it feels like a cheat.
Razor-sharp satires, those that take broad aim at impossible institutions, require a lunatic fearlessness. For all its trenchant potential, Get Out is a blunt instrument, and not even a particularly useful one. Whatever myriad anxieties we’re experiencing, Get Down offers at least one pointed observation: even good intentions only accomplish so much.
Get Out. Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, and Catherine Keener. Opens in Kansas City February 24, 2017.