Lost in the Movies: Get Out (The Unseen 2017)

Get Out (The Unseen 2017)


"The Unseen" is a series in which I watch popular films for the first time (reviews contain spoilers). The list, which moves backwards in time, is based on the highest-ranked film I've never seen each year on Letterboxd (as of April 2018). Get Out was #1 for 2017.

The Story: When Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) leaves his comfortable city apartment, decorated with his own arresting black-and-white photographs, for the country estate of his hip girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), he is anticipating an awkward weekend. The genial, talented young man is reassured by Rose that her family will be welcoming - goofy perhaps, but well-intentioned. However, something inside of him knows better. She's white. He's black. It shouldn't matter, right? Chris tries to believe this ideal but after his first day at the estate, he's earned the right to shake his head, look Rose in the eye, and sigh, "I told you so." Rose's dad Dean (Bradley Whitford, a knowing reference to the pious liberalism of The West Wing) presents a curious mixture of overbearing gregariousness and barely-concealed resentment. Rose's brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is some kind of Salingerian psychopath, whose jovially uncouth manner quickly slides into domineering threats of violence. Rose's mother Missy (Catherine Keeler) mostly scolds the male Armitages with an ominous serenity that suggests she's biding her time. And indeed she is. When she hypnotizes Chris that first night, it's the film's rawest moment of entitled aggression, veering from pushy invitation to rude castigation to shockingly invasive interrogation to...a genuine example of psychic abuse. Stirring a spoon against the edge of a teacup in a horrific take on ASMR, Missy sends Chris to the sunken place.

Chris wakes up in his own bed the next day, but he's been marked as prey and the wolves are circling. At an excruciating yard party, old white folks (and one inquiring Asian) verbally poke and prod Chris, fetishizing him with their racialized "compliments." The black servants and the one black guest are no better, speaking in a stilted manner and behaving awkwardly despite occasional flickers of recognition. Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield), whom we met as Andre Hayworth in the film's opening sequence (he's lost in a suburban neighborhood where a car stalks him and the driver knocks him out before dragging him away), breaks character when a phone-camera light flashes in his eyes. He grabs Chris and screams the film's title as a warning, before being dragged away. From a stilted reminder of racial difference to a more deeply alienating social experience to an increasingly unsettling dive into paranoia, the Get Out weekend finally reaches its destination: confirmation that Chris has been trapped by a racist medical cult that literally strips black people of their humanity, transplanting the brains of wealthy white individuals into the bodies of black ones, whose own consciousness sinks back into a "passenger" role. This is visualized as "the sunken place," a pitch-black void where Chris falls through space, while life unfolds overhead in a distanced screen he's unable to affect.

Even Rose erases her nuanced, empathetic "character" when it's no longer convenient to fool her boyfriend; she becomes a blank, ruthless killer with a closet full of photos of black men and women she entrapped with her "I'm one of the good ones" shtick. One by one, Chris kills his would-be captors, destroying the family as they attempt to destroy him (not only through direct physical attack but through manipulation of his psychological vulnerability: guilt over not protecting his hit-and-run victim mother when he was a little boy). Finally, he's saved by Rod Williams (Lil Rey Howery), a friend whose over-the-top conspiracy theories about a sex cult turn out to be closer to the mark than the skepticism and mockery of "sensible" characters. He's also one of the few other black characters in a film dominated by white people - every single one of whom has malicious intent.

The Context: Get Out was a sensation, perhaps the sensation of 2017. The timing didn't hurt; although written during the Barack Obama administration, the film was released several months into Donald Trump's presidency, as many people of color - already skeptical of the claim that America had entered a post-racial phase - were confronted once again with the unvarnished reality of a white supremacist society. Indeed, the self-deluding phenomenon is represented in the film itself as Dean repeatedly boasts that he would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could (Kaluuya has since noted that the new "I would have voted for Obama again" is, in his experience, "I watched Get Out three times"). Described by many black viewers as a refreshing confirmation of a deep-seated feeling they'd never seen represented so forthrightly in a movie before, the film's slow-burn reveal also resonated with white viewers who finally experienced a dawning realization of the post-civil rights era's persistent racism (and their own complicity in a range of hostile activities from microaggressions to deadly policing) through the Black Lives Matter era. The film turned "getting woke" into a Hitchcockian exercise in suspense, terror, and discomfort.

During an era when conformist corporate blockbusters dominated the box office, Get Out scored heavily, ranking #1 its opening weekend and proceeding to earn over $200 million worldwide, with the lion's share coming from American audiences. The film shattered all sorts of records as the debut of Jordan Peele, a comedian whose Key & Peele sketch show provided a surprising prelude to his mastery of the thriller format. Social media perpetuated the movie's status as a cultural event, crafting memes around its images, dialogue, and concepts (a year later, when Kanye West praised President Trump, Twitter was abuzz with "sunken place" references). Receiving near-unanimous praise (literally - off by just one review in over a hundred on Rotten Tomatoes), Get Out appeared on numerous year-end top ten lists and was nominated for Best Motion Picture...Musical or Comedy subdivision; a surprising categorization for a satirical but deadly serious film, and a source of much indignation and/or confusion. The Academy Awards nominated what was clearly the sensation of its year in four categories, and Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay. Having not yet seen the film, or even many clips or images (though I'd heard a fair amount about it via podcasts and tweets), I watched the montage used to illustrate it during the ceremony and shook my head: there was absolutely no way a film this subversive was going to win the top award. And it didn't.

My Response: If I made any effort to go see movies in theaters in 2017 this would have been near the top of my list. Even during award season, however, when I borrowed someone else's screener, I was too preoccupied with other work to watch it. So here we are in the "Unseen" series, reviewing a film that was #1 of my Letterboxd guide list for the second time in two entries (there will only be two more in the remaining ninety-eight) - the present, much more than any past era, is my cinematic blindspot. Nonetheless, I did listen to a lot of podcasts during this period, and also spent a lot of time on Twitter, so it was impossible not to hear quite a bit about this film. I didn't go into it knowing quite as much as I knew about Black Panther beforehand, but I had picked up that the Armitages were transplanting white people into black bodies, that there would be a video presentation/exposition of this project, that eventually even Rose would betray him, and that the film would end with Chris killing the entire family. That's a lot of information, especially for a film whose twists were kept under tight wraps until it was released, helping to build anticipation and word of mouth.

Perhaps for this reason, I didn't expect Get Out to foster much suspense or visceral anxiety, even as I hoped the film would sweep me up in its storytelling (it did) and knew that I would be engaged with and compelled by its premise and political implications. I'm also not always terribly frightened or provoked by horror movies. To my surprise, however, the genre aspects of the film had a powerful effect on me. A sense of unease creeped into the movie from the early scenes, recalling not just the obvious antecedents of Alfred Hitchcock or John Carpenter but also more surreal filmmakers like David Lynch or Lars von Trier (the slow zoom - as I recall the shot - into the deer's head left me half-expecting it to look up and hiss at Chris, ala Antichrist). Richard Brody's review also cites Luis Bunuel, an apt comparison as much for Get Out's sly but seething, absurdist portrayal of the self-assured, preposterous, yet dangerously destructive bourgeoise as for any uncanny symbolic flourishes. Aside from The Stepford Wives, which Peele has repeatedly cited (and which I've never seen), the clearest classic parallel to Get Out is Rosemary's Baby, another iconic entry into what Peele calls "social horror." Peele's work shares not only Polanski's fondness for striking point of view shots and a subtly unsettling wide lens, but also that film's extension of existing social tensions and power dynamics into territory that could seem simultaneously over-the-top and all too rooted in actual historical exploitation of bodies (in Rosemary's case forced pregnancy, in Get Out's case chattel slavery).

Of course, where Peele differs from these other directors - most of whom conveyed women's perspectives with sympathy and sensitivity alongside some lingering identification with the subjectivity of their male exploiters (in Hitchcock's and Polanski's cases, even ruthlessly exploiting and abusing female victims in real life) - is his direct identification with his protagonist, in this case a black man threatened by a white world. This affords the film a sharp, unambiguous sense of purpose: Peele isn't empathizing here, he's communicating his own experience. Get Out's very premise, emphasizing not so much an enclosed elite's desire to exclude or persecute blackness, but the ingrained colonizer's instinct to actually dominate and even inhabit people of African descent, is radically offset by Peele's control over the material itself. The more I reflect on this film, the more revolutionary it seems: revolutionary because it embraces its own power without for a moment thinking that this compromises its integrity (in other words, it does not settle for the sly liberal trap of fetishizing victimhood and implicitly condemning liberatory, self-defensive empowerment), and revolutionary because if it addresses white viewers at all, it isn't with a flattering plea for inclusion but a bold assertion of autonomy.

As a white viewer myself, I can recognize the truth in Peele's statement that "By the middle — or even earlier in the film — everyone is Chris. Everyone is looking through the same set of eyes. The movie was bringing people together instead of tearing each other apart. It’s the power of storytelling." I definitely identified with him as the circle of conspirators drew closer, encouraged by the genre conventions and immersive mise en scene as well as Kaluuya's self-described "everyman" relatability to cheer him on, sweat when he sweats, and breathe a massive sigh of relief with every blow he strikes against his vicious captors. However, I don't think the film - to its credit - lets me off the hook as easily as that. This is thanks to both to the provocative foregrounding of its genre subversion (making us conscious of the racism inherent in the very tropes it's subverting) as well as its identification of the myriad subtleties by which white cultural hegemony, particularly the form characterized by facts or perceptions of wealth, profession, education, and taste, polices black identities. For anyone whom society has ever placed in that position, however approximately or conditionally, the mirror in Get Out is not only located in the hero, but in the monsters. This individualized characterization is both the film's strength (lending it a visceral power and a place inside the narrative canon it subverts from within) and a potential limitation, as some (usually still sympathetic) radical critiques have noted: Get Out identifies specific characters rather than an entire society as the enemy. That said, a systemic critique is implicit precisely in the film's refusal to offer a white character who is "one of the good ones." Rather than slice itself off from the larger world, the film's narrow focus helps it feel more like an allegorical microcosm.

Both narratively and stylistically, perhaps Get Out's most striking, innovative quality is the subtlety of its exaggeration. The whole film exists as a kind of extended sketch, in which we're economically provided just enough crucial context to establish the premise. We never get a real hold on which city Chris lives in or where Rose's family resides (the film was shot in Alabama for convenience, but avoids pinning this upper-class estate to a specifically "Southern plantation" vibe). The film is sparing in its anecdotes and background detail: the grandfather's Jesse Owens gripe, Logan's history with Chris and Rod, the blind gallery owner's lament - all tell us exactly what we need to know without indulging in any extended worldbuilding. Most notably, Chris' trauma with his mother stands alone without any further biographical context, elegantly providing narrative hook and character motivation in order to move the plot forward rather than flesh out individual idiosyncrasies. Yet the film never feels like a sketch in the moment; only afterwards did I realize how many details are left purposefully vague.

I can see a bit of this quality in my few glimpses of Peele's sketch show, in which the situations are absurd but the delivery is casual and low-key, elegantly eschewing the arch, purposefully crude quotations-around-it quality of Saturday Night Live. This has been in trend in comedy for a while (most widely perpetuated in the pseudo-documentary style exemplified by The Office), but I've never seen it used quite like this, particularly since Get Out embraces not an on-the-fly verite format but a classical Hollywood storytelling style - what Mark Cousins calls "closed romantic realism" in his film history The Story of Film. For a long time the film avoids emphasizing its satirical aspect, never winking at us, which makes the slow unveiling of its most over-the-top conceits that much more unnerving - and less easy to dismiss. Take the way Rose transforms from a nuanced portrait of a well-meaning but naive, privileged progressive young white woman into a cartoonish villain with nearly supernatural powers of manipulation. Beneath her socialized mask lies a terrifying sociopathy and so this shift toward "caricature" and "exaggeration" feels more like exposure than simplification. Mystification is shattered, a deeper, more brutal truth is revealed, the crude, bare-bones white supremacist base is laid bare beneath the arty "we're all complex" superstructure.

I've written before about four fundamental ways of making and watching cinema: immersion in a plausible but carefully-crafted illusion (most Hollywood filmmaking); the patient unfolding of a moment within time captured through long takes and wide shots (the path of many great European auteurs, as celebrated in Andre Bazin's What is Cinema); an often overtly Marxist exposure of the artifice of both Hollywood illusion and European realism by foregrounding the "manmade" qualities of the medium (achieved not just through overt Brechtian artificiality but also something as stylistically foregrounded as Sergei Eisenstein's montage); and a Jungian immersion in a deeper reality (think David Lynch or uncanny moments in Jacques Rivette). It's rare to find films that shift so deftly between different modes, but I think Get Out moves subtly from the first category to the third with subversive ease, using the context/expectations of the horror genre as vehicle rather than camouflage.

Signs of the Times: Subject matter and public reception are already enough to identify Get Out as a product of the late teens; while black horror films, including those that foreground racial context, are nothing new, the directness and popularity of Get Out indicate its existence in a post-Obama, post-Trayvon Martin, post-(or rather ongoing) police violence context. And for all its persistent discrimination and exclusivity, only a film industry and culture pressured by popular demands for diversity and representation would be willing to both facilitate and reward such a project. Stylistically, the film's depiction of the terrifying sunken place has a distinctly twenty-first century digital flavor, similar in its ominous, inky emptiness to the psychic space of the contemporaneous sci-fi show Stranger Things, both of which seem inspired by one of the signature designs of this era: Jonathan Glazer's and Chris Oddy's haunting work on Under the Skin (2013).

There is a classical assurance to the film's tight editing, immersive movements, and symmetrical compositions that have been aesthetic hallmarks of many of the most celebrated, accomplished auteurs of this period (one critic compared and contrasted Get Out's subject and social relevance to Gone Girl, but its assured formal vision, especially in its last third, also has a Fincheresque flavor). And the video that Chris is forced to watch is notable for the goofiness of its nineties look (both in terms of the picture quality and the family's fashion), suggesting that the last decade of the previous century is far enough in the past to emphasize its dated qualities. Although at this point it's more of a ubiquitous touchstone than a zeitgeist-indicating novelty, the importance of a cell phone to the story is also worth noting as we slowly journey into cinema's - and society's - past through this series. Indeed, part of the movie's terror (sadly resonant in an era when cell phone videos draw frequent public condemnation but only rarely judicial consequences) is the realization that Chris' technology won't save him.

Other Films: Get Out was a surprise hit, turning one of the largest profits of 2017, but the top five domestic box office hits of the year tell a different story. Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 incidate audience interest in familiarity, with only Jumanji (still an adaptation of a beloved children's book that had already been a hit movie in the nineties) standing outside the realm of mega-budget name brand franchise/property. Other important films of the year include Christopher Nolan's World War II epic Dunkirk, the remake of Stephen King's It, Edgar Wright's stylish crime film Baby Driver, the lush, romantic Call Me By Your Name and Greta Gerwig's highly acclaimed Lady Bird. Although nominated for Best Picture, Get Out lost to The Shape of Water, another highly original horror film with a message about racism - albeit one apparently more abstracted, heartwarming and optimistic than Get Out's sharp, terrifying satire.

Next month: La La Land (2016) Last month: Black Panther (2018)

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