"Get Out" opens with LaKeith Stanfield (of TV's "Atlanta") walking around suburbia at night, alone. A black man visiting a very white neighborhood, he knows that nobody will look for much of an excuse to hassle him (or worse), so when he sees a car stalking him, he turns around...only to be followed, grabbed, and pulled into the vehicle to the sound of Flanagan and Allen's "Run, Rabbit, Run." First-time director Jordan Peele gradually reveals the threat ably, but even outside of using horror mechanics, he recognizes the expectations of a black threat to a white populace (when the opposite is more likely) and he turns it on its head.
That's in keeping with the kind of work Peele did on his terrific sketch comedy series "Key & Peele" (and, to a lesser extent, in the fitfully funny "Keanu," which Peele co-wrote and co-starred in), but "Get Out" reveals Peele to be a savvy student of the horror genre. The film is still more successful as social commentary and comedy than as horror, with Peele showing comfort in the former territory vs. modest ability in the latter, but if "Get Out" is more promising than superior, it's still a far more satisfying entry into Peele's body of work than his film debut.
Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris Washington, a talented black photographer traveling to his girlfriend's (Allison Williams) parents' home for the weekend. Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) are friendly, even enthusiastic about their daughter's interracial relationship, but Chris' discomfort grows as typical tone deafness gives way to more sinister overtures.
Peele's greatest gift as a director may be his casting sense: Williams, Whitford and Keener all fit perfectly, with Whitford (best known for playing Josh on "The West Wing") as the ultimate slightly smug white liberal who brags out of nowhere about wishing to vote Obama in for a third term, only to hit notes suggesting an ultimate desire to control the conversation; Keener is equally strong as the psychiatrist mother whose calm demeanor betrays her own need for control.
Williams, meanwhile, appears in her first film (after 6 years as the self-absorbed Marnie on "Girls") in a remarkably canny career move, twisting her persona's obliviousness to sweeter ends while still showing how her dismissiveness of her black boyfriend's concerns is rooted as much in a desire to avoid blame as in natural ignorance. Kaluuya, for his part, gives a performance of quiet power, shrugging off the family's missteps until the truly strange behavior from their black employees, all acting like Stepford Wives, tips him off that something's up.
The film's best scene, a mid-film party in which Kaluuya deals both with overt racism (questions about what goes on in the bedroom) and performative allies politely. "Get Out" isn't subtle, often all but stating that there's a self-serving nature to white people even with the best intentions in race relations, but it's very effective, getting cringe comedy as well as creeping dread as it builds towards its big twist.
When that rolls around, Peele's training wheels as a director start to creak a bit. Schooled though he may be in horror (throwing in references to "The Shining," "Poltergeist" and especially "Rosemary's Baby"), he only occasionally reaches for the true expressiveness of his influences (exception: a hypnotism scene between Kaluuya and Keener). There's a slight timidity to his work, which uses space and framing skillfully but without the intangible qualities that make the best horror films truly unnerve. And though the film's latter half is entertaining as Kaluuya gives the bad guys their comeuppance, it loses some of the specificity of the first half, with the message getting a bit muddled as the film goes for pure horror. Still, Peele's voice is vivid enough that one can see the great film he's trying to make in the fitfully brilliant one he did make. Here's hoping round two behind the camera builds on that promise.