The Girl Without Hands
What he does best is create a palpable sense of dread without pushing, without tilting into melodrama.
This review was originally published on January 24, 2017, as a part of our Sundance Film Festival coverage.
With the ambitious and challenging “Get Out,” which premiered in a secret screening at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Jordan Peele reveals that we may someday consider directing the greatest talent of this fascinating actor and writer. We knew from his days on “Key & Peele” and in feature comedies that he was a multiple threat, but his directorial debut is a complex, accomplished genre hybrid that should alter his business card. “Get Out” feels fresh and sharp in a way that studio horror movies almost never do. It is both unsettling and hysterical, often in the same moment, and it is totally unafraid to call people on their racist bullshit. When he introduced the film in Park City, he revealed that it started with an attempt to write a movie he hadn’t seen before. We need more directors willing to take risks with films like "Get Out."
To be fair, Peele is clearly riffing on some films he has seen before, including “The Stepford Wives” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” although with a charged, racial twist. His film is essentially about that unsettling feeling when you know you don’t belong somewhere; when you know you’re unwanted or perhaps even wanted too much. Peele infuses the age-old genre foundation of knowing something is wrong behind the closed doors around you with a racial, satirical edge. What if going home to meet your girlfriend’s white parents wasn’t just uncomfortable but downright life-threatening?
“Get Out” opens with a fantastic tone-setter. A young man (the great Keith Stanfield, in two other movies at this year’s Sundance and fantastic on FX’s “Atlanta”) is walking down a suburban street, joking with someone on the phone about how he always gets lost because all the streets sound the same. A car passes him, turns around, and slowly starts following him. It’s an otherwise empty street, so the guy knows something is wrong. Suddenly, and perfectly staged in terms of Peele’s direction, the intensity of the situation is amplified and we are thrust into a world in which the safe-looking suburbs are anything but.
Cut to our protagonists, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams of “Girls”), preparing to go home to meet her parents. Rose hasn’t told them he’s black, which she blows off as no big deal, but he’s wary. His TSA Agent buddy (a hysterical LilRel Howery) warns him against going too, but Chris is falling in love with Rose. He’ll have to meet them eventually. And Rose swears her dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have.
From the minute that Chris and Rose arrive at her parents’ house, something is unsettling. Sure, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) seem friendly enough, but almost too much so, like they’re looking to impress Chris. More unnerving is the demeanor of a groundskeeper named Walter (Marcus Henderson) and a housekeeper named Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who almost appear to be like the pod people from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” There’s just something wrong. But, as we so often do in social or racial situations, Chris keeps trying to excuse their behavior—maybe Walter is jealous and maybe Georgina has an issue with Chris being with a white woman. The lurking presence of Rose’s odd brother (Caleb Landry Jones), who often looks like he’s auditioning for a remake of “A Clockwork Orange,” doesn’t help. Chris goes out to have a smoke one night, and, well, things start to get even stranger in ways I won’t spoil—in fact, the preview gives away way too much. Avoid it if you can.
“Get Out” is a slow-burn of a film for its first half as Peele piles up the clues that something is wrong. Or could Chris just be overreacting to everyday racial tension? Peele’s greatest gift here is in the way he walks that fine line, staging exchanges that happen all the time but imbuing them with a greater degree of menace. As white partygoers comment on Chris’ genetically-blessed physical gifts, the mind is racing as to what exactly the greater purpose of this visit is for this young man, a minority in a sea of white people who seem to want to own him, which is itself a razor-sharp commentary on the way we often seek to possess cultural aspects other than our own.
Then Peele drops his hammer. The final act of “Get Out” is an unpredictable thrill ride. As a writer, Peele doesn’t quite bring all of his elements together in the climax in the way I wish he would, but he proves to be a strong visual artist as a director, finding unique ways to tell a story that goes increasingly off the rails. The insanity of the final act allows some of the satirical, racially-charged issues to drop away, which is slightly disappointing. He’s playing with so many interesting ideas when it comes to race that I wish the film felt a bit more satisfying in its payoff, even if that disappointment is amply offset by the pure intensity of the final scenes, during which Peele displays a skill with horror action that I didn’t know he had.
Peele works well with actors too, drawing a great leading man turn from Kaluuya, letting Williams essentially riff on her “Girls” persona, and knowing exactly what to do with Whitford & Keener, both of whom have always had that dangerous edge to their amiability. They’re excellent at working something sinister into their gracious host routines.
Most importantly, Peele knows how to keep his concept front and center. “Get Out” is not a film that takes breaks for comedy routines (even if Howery allows a little relief, it's often in the context of how he's convinced all white people want black sex slaves), keeping us on edge and uncertain from the opening scene to the final one. He understands that every time a black man goes home to visit his white girlfriend’s parents, there is uncertainty and unease. He’s merely turning that up, using an easily identifiable racial tension to make a horror movie. Many of our greatest genre filmmakers have done exactly the same thing—amplifying fears already embedded in the human condition for the purpose of movie horror. We just don’t often see something quite so ambitious from a February horror flick or a first-time director. Even if the second half doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of the first, Peele doesn’t just deserve credit for trying something so daring; he should have producers knocking down his door to see what else he’s never seen before.