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film review

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams star as couple Chris and Rose in Get Out, a twist on the horror genre that highlights the very bad things that can happen when we don’t address our unease.Justin Lubin

A familiar phrase pops up when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) tries to explain to his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), why he feels so uneasy around her groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson): "It's not what he says, it's how he says it."

It's one of maybe a half-dozen lines of perfect, vibrating meaning in Get Out, Jordan Peele's horror-comedy directing debut. It's charged by the fact that Chris is black and Rose isn't; he's already expressed uneasiness at the fact Rose didn't happen to mention that fact to her family before they came up for their meet-the-parents weekend. It doesn't help that Chris has just endured a night of her father (Bradley Whitford) proudly explaining how he would have voted for Barack Obama for a third term, and her brother (Caleb Landry Jones) remarking on his frame and genetic makeup, nor that Walter and the equally how-she-says-it housekeeper, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), seem to be the only black people around for miles and they are, naturally, the help.

So that phrase – which you might have recently heard in, say, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, used to describe Mark Fuhrman – is both red flag and white noise: a suggestion of a deep worry on Chris's part, but something Rose can easily brush off as him being paranoid. It's a code that she just doesn't get – that she plays off, suspiciously frequently, by appealing to his jealousy and sexual vanity – which makes it that much easier for Chris to pass it off as nothing, even as the weird hows and code glitches start piling up.

When Rose's mother (Catherine Keener) seems just a bit too eager to hypnotize away Chris's smoking habit, when some of the family friends are uncomfortably inquisitive about how he grew up, when he finally sees another black guy his age but he's dressed in a straw boater and doesn't recognize a dap when he sees one, Chris is encouraged, by the ingrained sense of belonging as much as the conspicuously accommodating white people around him, to just shrug it off, act casual, let it all go and tell Rose, "I told you so" when they're alone together again.

It's an ingenious twist by writer/director Peele, heretofore known as the more sedate, nerdy half of the Key and Peele sketch-comedy duo. With one device, he not only solves the problem of horror-film participant credulity – something he mocks even harder with the chorus-like presence of Lil Rel Howery, who pops up from time to time specifically to comment on how weird the whole situation seems – he satirizes the uneasy peace of oh-I-guess-we're-not-actually-post-racial-who-knew America. The tool of rising horror in Get Out is overbearing accommodation, a bunch of smiling people trying to insist that nothing is wrong and making a young black man feel paranoid for thinking that something might be.

This works better as a pointed statement than as an actual, you know, horror film, but both aspects benefit from Peele's facility with detail. Just as he knows how to make a social interaction feel wormy and uncomfortable – not quite right, but not quite wrong, exactly, nah, you wouldn't get it – he knows how to make an image placid but uneasy, the scares sometimes right in front of you, and sometimes lurking just off the screen.

His comedy chops come in handy, too, not just in the sense of pacing, but also for giving a tension release valve that works in exactly the same way as Rose's insistence that it's all in Chris's head. That is another ingenious twist here, albeit one buried deeper: This is ultimately a movie about the very bad things that can happen when we don't address our unease, when we just try to brush it off, whether that's to fit in or to preserve our self-image. It's not what we're not saying, but how we're not saying it.