During the concluding season of the great “Key and Peele” comedy sketch series, the skits had become increasingly darker. It seemed that the creators, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, didn’t wish to merely parody horror films but create mini-horror films on their show, with certain sketches unspooling in skin-crawling fashion.
I was worried that last year’s hit and mostly miss Keanu would stall the momentum and film careers of Key and Peele. It appears my worries were unnecessary. While the former remains an in-demand actor (he’s co-starring in next year’s new Predator installment), the latter has become a writer and director with this, his debut behind the camera. Peele’s stunning film demonstrates a great understanding of the genre and more intelligence, creativity and suspense than most horror films.
Allison Williams (the star of the recent Peter Pan Live!) plays Rose Armitage, who’s about to take her African-American boyfriend Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) to meet her parents. Chris is uneasy that Rose hasn’t informed her parents that he’s black. However, Chris is informed that Rose’s parents (played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, in knockout performances) aren’t racist. In fact, they push too hard by informing Chris just how open-minded and sympathetic to African-Americans they are. Then, Rose’s mother volunteers to cure Chris of his smoking habit by use of hypnotism and things get much, much weirder.
The setup is an update of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner but the payoff is deliciously different. Peele piles on wild ideas, striking visuals and a potent layer of social commentary. While the set-up is extensive and loaded with potential, the third act offers lots of surprises and satisfying confrontations.
Peele has selected a cast that makes the premise believable and delivers exceptional work. Kaluuya and Williams are excellent, grounding the film in realistic turns. Including Lil Rel Howery as Rod, Chris’ best friend, was an inspired choice. Initially, the character seems to be on hand strictly for comic relief but gradually becomes a crucial part of the story. Howery is hilarious but the character is genuinely endearing.
Peele understands the power of the close-up and has a notably unsettling sequence at the midpoint. There’s an excruciatingly tight shot on Georgina, played by Betty Gabriel, as her confession to Chris becomes a contained breakdown. Gabriel’s haunting performance got under my skin.
A visual I don’t wish to spoil and will tiptoe around is Peele’s depiction of living trapped in a state of helplessness. It’s one of many scenes that cast a nightmarish grip. Likewise, the opening scene, perfectly achieved in just two shots, that portrays a menace lurking in an upscale neighborhood.
There are limitations to Peele’s premise, even if taken strictly as a satire. He specifically targets racism in the form of condescending and self-righteous flattery. Although I admire the scope of Peele’s concept and it was wise to not over-explain everything, there are frustrating gaps in how much he allows us to see and understand.
On the other hand, I still prefer Peele’s you-fill-in-the-blanks approach to the third act over the film’s tell-all, spoiler-palooza trailer. Seeing this movie with little to no prior knowledge of what to expect is the best way to see this and most other films.
What Deadpool was to the superhero genre a year ago, Get Out is to horror films: a refreshing change of pace that finds new life by taking real chances. The conventional quality of the closing scenes keep it from transcendental but this is much better than M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. Peele’s busts out of the confines of the modern horror movie, occasionally overreaches and doesn’t nail every scare. Still, his blend of on-the-nose social commentary and paranoia-inducing fear is undeniably creepy.