No one can ignore his blackness.
When Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is invited by his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), to meet her parents during a weekend getaway at the family’s secluded estate, he encounters an atmosphere thick with awkwardness.
The family and neighbors are not racist, per se. But they’re trying so hard not to be racist. A little too eager to explain how they would have voted Obama into a third term. How Tiger is their favorite golfer.
Writer/director Jordan Peele of the Emmy-winning comedy duo Key and Peele doesn’t capitalize on this discomfort merely for laughs; he goes for genuine horror. His Sundance Film Festival hit “Get Out” emerges as one of the freshest reworkings of the genre in years. And it’s one sizzling with social commentary about race relations in America.
Chris, an unassuming artist who makes his living taking moody black-and-white photographs (get it?), has spent five months dating Rose before agreeing to meet her parents.
“Do they know I’m black?” he asks.
Despite the warning of his best friend, an opinionated TSA agent named Rod (Lil Rel Howery), Chris agrees to the excursion. He’s initially put at ease by the good-natured hospitality of her neurosurgeon dad (Bradley Whitford) and psychologist mom (Catherine Keener). But he’s less enamored with their hired help, a groundskeeper and housekeeper (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel) who seem, well … off.
“I know what you’re thinking. White family. Black servants. Total cliché,” the dad apologizes.
Things get weirder when Rose’s mom offers to help Chris kick his cigarette habit through her therapeutic specialty: hypnosis.
Is Chris just paranoid or is there something sinister at play here?
“Get Out” could be pitched as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” meets “The Stepford Wives” (with a helping of the lesser-known horror flick “The Skeleton Key” thrown in), but it’s stronger than any of those dated pictures. Much of its potency comes from the simple plausibility of its setup. Anyone who has been the only person of color at a party — or someone straining to make that person feel more comfortable — will relate to the nervous-laughter anxiety in these early scenes. Such a queasy clash of tolerance and self-congratulation for being so tolerant.
As the movie claws more into its horror elements, Peele’s impressive filmmaking skills come into focus. His debut feature stages some memorably shocking sequences, including a tour de force hypnotism section in which Chris gradually becomes seduced by the clank of the therapist’s spoon stirring against her teacup, retreating farther into the recesses of what Keener’s character calls “the sunken place.” (This evokes the brain-bending imagery of “Being John Malkovich,” the fantasy that landed the actress her first Oscar nomination.)
These cinematic flourishes are layered with racial subtext regarding slavery, master-race ideology and liberal guilt that weaves throughout the movie in unexpected callbacks. And they’re emboldened by the score of rookie Michael Abels, peppered with chanting that sounds like the secret language of a doomsday cult.
It’s easy to envision “Get Out” as a comedy sketch for a younger Peele in the brassier role of Rod and comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key as Chris. But by casting a non-comedian in the lead, the movie doesn’t rely on punch lines.
British actor Kaluuya is likely most familiar to American audiences — at least those with Netflix — for a starring role in the great anthology series “Black Mirror.” (He’ll also join the Marvel universe in the upcoming “Black Panther.”) Here he supplies the right mix of unflappability and confidence needed to be both an Everyman and a last man standing.
When the true nature of his predicament gets revealed, Kaluuya and Peele ensure all viewers want to see him survive to exact revenge on those smiling, pandering faces that have been eyeing him ever since he arrived.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R. Time: 1:45.