glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | may 2017
There is a rich history in the horror genre of tackling social issues, Eloy de la Iglesia, for instance, made an interesting story of closeted sexuality with “The Cannibal Man" in 1972), John Carpenter and David Cronenberg's films are heavily infused with social and political ideas from the right and the left and there are countless other times when the supposedly disreputable side of cinema brought discussion of touchy subjects to the screen. The liberties that the genre and the nature of its fan base allow are a valuable tool in filmmaking and not least because of the way many issues can be dealt with in both direct and indirect ways. Serious ideas and issues can come cloaked in a wide range of tones and in varying degrees of transparency, often more so than anything other than the more oblique or symbolic examples in art house cinema. It's one of the few advantages of being in a genre that is vastly underestimated by many people.
“Get Out" is one of those films that has something to say.
Drawing from the atmosphere of films like “The Stepford Wives," we find our lead, an African American young man called Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), about to travel to meet the parents of his girlfriend Allison. Allison, an apparently very progressive, color blind young woman, assures him that it'll all be fine and that his color will not be an issue despite his understandable anxiety and his desire that her parents at least have a heads up. On arriving at the homestead he finds them accepting, to a fault, though, as awkward as it is, he finds the parents very accommodating. But it's not long before the uncomfortable kicks in as the overbearing politeness becomes creepy as things start to seem very, very wrong. On meeting some of the black community, the weirdness only gets weirder as they barely seem human, let alone normal. When one black guest at the party has a “seizure," he begs Chris to “get out!" and the artifice of a tolerant community collapses to reveal an unfortunately old fashioned world.
Stepping into that atmosphere that the classic paranoia films have, “Get Out" is one of those “What's wrong with this picture" kind of films. Approaching social issues like racism is a tricky path to tread and “Get Out" is very effective in a couple of ways at doing this. Our central character is an affable, likeable, regular guy who has very understandable concerns about his place in society but he's not overbearing about it, while his girlfriend is quite confrontational about the difficulties he's subjected to. The girlfriend Alison (Rose Armitage) seems to be beyond cool about supporting him, but when Chris meets the family there is a creepy vibe that only gets worse as time passes. What “Get Out" does well is that it puts us behind our lead's eyes; we see the world as he sees it, with all the uncomfortable efforts to make a show of acceptance and there is an air of paranoia that slips in regarding the overbearing front that the family and their friends put on around him. And paranoia is probably the best way to describe the feelings of watching the film. It creeps under the skin (ironically) and pokes at raw nerves and suspicions from a point of view that's rarely seen in mainstream movies.
There's an often understated, cringe-making air of creepiness and an unspoken threat that builds the tension effectively and the performances across the board are perfect in how deliberately and often subtly “off" they are.
It's worth reiterating that this is Chris' story, everything we see and hear, everything that is conveyed to us is from his point of view and as such the world is tinted by his experiences and opinions. This does have a tendency to render the characters around him as a bit two dimensional, like they're more often little more than throwbacks clothed in current day outfits and this both works in some ways and is a little exasperating in others. The attentive characterization only really extends beyond Chris to Allison's immediate family and while that is understandable given the point of view of the film it also means we're presented with what feels like a living historical photo rather than a place with living breathing characters. However, the least attractive thing is the “comic relief" which, while not being as overbearing as it could have been, is still an out of place element that partly kills the otherwise unbroken atmosphere of the film.
The performance of Daniel Kaluuya as Chris is worthy of a special shout out. He gets the characters reaction to the situation balanced to perfection which is no small feat considering how easy it would have been for it to have gone over the top one way or the other. As it is, the character responds in a way that feels real and that we can get behind. The way the situation unfolds is paced pretty well and things are revealed in a fairly natural way which is remarkable considering how easy and probably tempting it would have been to go in full bore to get to the action. As it is, the film is patient and lets the cloying atmosphere and paranoia deliver the treats until the time is right to get serious with the gory stuff.
Minor complaints aside, “Get Out" is overall an interesting film with some really good ideas. While it is some way from being entirely consistent, it can certainly be held up as a great example of how politics work within the horror genre, particularly when it comes to politics of this nature. In those respects it's an unusual entry and I'd urge you not to be too concerned about the idea of the film being political, it certainly manages to stand up well even outside that element and provides an experience that is both unsettling and interesting.
He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.
For more of Glenn's work, visit cynicalcelluloid.com.