As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a gangster—I mean, film critic. Ahem, yes of course, that’s what I meant (though now that I mention it, it’s relatively easy to confuse gangsters and film critics — both operate within exclusive secret societies, neither can claim to have a legitimate job on their tax returns, and their members are known to die unceremoniously before their time).
This no doubt comes as a shock of defibrillating proportions to anyone in my life who’s ever attempted to watch a movie with me for more than seven seconds, but it’s true – writing professionally for a major website (that may or may not rhyme with PlogerPlebert.plom) is a gig I’d basically kill for. Unfortunately, until some media mogul decides to pay me for my opinions, I’m afraid I have minimal interest in devoting my free time and extra money to reviewing contemporary films in time for them to be relevant to Joe and Jane Moviegoer – even if I did, they already have Rotten Tomatoes or Half in the Bag for that.
However, I do have a keen interest in analyzing a film’s narrative mechanics in an effort to break down its effectiveness, or lack thereof, regardless of whether said film is modern or dated. Like the master clocksmith who yearned to understand what drove that blasted cuckoo bird to sing its song every hour on the hour (I’m going somewhere with this…), so I approach my film collection in the same insatiable hunger for truth and understanding. What makes good films ‘good’, or bad films ‘bad’? How does one tell the difference? Is character more important than plot, or vice versa? Is it possible to chart the progress of a story based on telltale narrative markers? Will I finally be able to explain to the world that Rogue One wasn’t actually good??
Having established all that nonsense, the film I’ve selected for my inaugural post is Get Out, a psychological horror film written and directed by whichever one of the Key and Peele duo Jordan Peele is. It stars someone named Daniel Kaluuya as an introspective African-American photographer who accompanies his Caucasian girlfriend on a weekend visit to her parents’ upscale rural home. True to the nature of the film’s genre, absolutely nothing goes wrong, everyone has a wonderful time, and no one gets brutally eviscerated by deer antlers. Roll credits – the audience goes home feeling refreshed with the knowledge that there are good people in the world and that racism is a blight of a bygone age.
In all seriousness, Get Out is one of the best original films I’ve seen in years – in fact, I’d call it one of the most highly effective stories in recent memory, which is remarkable considering it premiered in February, a month where studios traditionally dumped their movies to die. To delve into it further, I implore all my loyal readers to view the film before reading further. If the horror / thriller genre isn’t your forte and you’re only here for the quality of my diction, I warn you that spoilers abound in plenteousness (…is anyone reading this drivel? Besides my mom, I mean?)
In regards to Get Out’s actual plot, there’s really not much to it – black protagonist visits white girlfriend’s family, is seriously creeped out after several cryptic interactions, discovers he is the target of an illicit underground brain-swapping organization, murders everyone during his escape, and fin. You know, standard horror fare.
Honestly, it’s rather remarkable that Get Out is as good as it is when its narrative structure is so prototypical. Let’s face it – the “protagonist takes a weekend visit to a remote cabin / house / mansion with friend(s) only to get swept up in villainous tomfoolery” plot is such a tired trope that I wouldn’t fault one for dismissing Get Out based on its logline alone. However, what elevates Get Out from the infernal cliche pit is Peele’s own unique directorial flare – his keen attention to detail, his clear and direct characterizations, his implementation of atmosphere to build tension, his distinct visual style, and his appropriate usage of humour to keep things from sinking too deep into the dour. He successfully utilizes an otherwise standard premise with straightforward precision and even manages to sidestep many of the genre’s common pitfalls (emphasis on jump scares, convoluted spiritualism, protagonist’s refusal to flee location, etc.).
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength in this regard is that it doesn’t waste any time getting to the point. While a lesser horror flick might squander the majority of its second act trying to convince us that no, everything is just perfectly fine at the cabin / house / mansion and it’s completely reasonable for our hero to stay put despite all the horror tropes oozing up from the floorboards (known otherwise as the plot of The Woman in Black), Get Out’s hero is unsettled and suspicious from the onset. Some disconcerting interactions with the housekeeping staff and a hypnotic encounter with the Armitage matriarch compels him to voice his unease to his beloved girlfriend – who even seemingly agrees with his concerns – and by Saturday afternoon he decides it’s in his best interests to just make like the title and get out.
It speaks volumes of Peele as a screenwriter that he doesn’t insult his audience’s intelligence with unnecessary subterfuge before an inevitable reveal that we all would have seen coming anyway. Face it, we all know before the studio vanity cards dance before us that shady deeds are underfoot at the Armitage abode, we just don’t know what. The dramatic reveal then lies in what specific activities the Armitages are involved in, what reasons they have for engaging in them, and the extent of who exactly is involved. Again, these revelations aren’t entirely shocking in themselves, but are unfolded so efficiently and effectively that they still elicit a gasp even after multiple viewings.
On the matter of characterization I again cite Peele’s sharp attention to detail. Just as the laws of science dictate every cause have an effect, so the laws of screenwriting (which are regrettably oft ignored or overlooked by amateurs, novices, and Michael Bays) mandate that crucial plot points have an appropriate setup and a payoff. Jordan Peele clearly paid attention in Screenwriting 101 – early on he establishes his protagonist’s hesitance to leave an injured deer to die on the roadside following a collision. As the plot unfolds he makes several revelations, the first being that his mother perished in a hit and run accident when he was a child, and the second and more poignant that she did not die right away – had he gone searching for her when she did not return home on time she might have lived. His crippling guilt is readdressed during the climax when he accidentally strikes the Armitage housekeeper while escaping and cannot bring himself to leave her, and comes full circle when he ultimately does leave his treasonous love to bleed out and die behind him as he makes his flight. Everything has a setup and a payoff, and it’s beautiful to behold.
Everything, of course, except the escape sequence itself, which I might describe as an abrupt handbrake left turn off the highway and down WTF Avenue. One might expect a film that implements hypnosis and mind control so heavily as a plot device to task its protagonist with turning these instruments against his captors – triumphing over evil in a battle of psychology and wits. Not so – once free from his restraints our hero immediately bloody murders everyone in his path with blunt brutality. Though jarring and unexpected, it somehow still works… so who am I to complain?
Get Out has been heralded by critics as everything from a commentary on racism to a brilliant genre satire to an extraordinary horror-comedy hybrid. While I’m not entirely sure how they’re justifying the comedy category (though humourous at times, it certainly doesn’t reach the absurdly comedic heights of the great Cabin in the Woods), I myself would again call Get Out a pinnacle of effective storytelling.
And if you’re wondering why my personal endorsement should matter, I’ll have you know I once skimmed Robert McKee’s Story – I think I know what I’m talking about.