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Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a photographer, a black man (which is relevant), in love with Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), a white girl (also relevant) who’s decided it’s time he met her wealthy parents living in the country. They are Dean (Bradley Whitford), a successful neurosurgeon and his wife, psychiatrist/hypnotherapist Missy (Catherine Keener), whose practice is also well sought after. Living with them is Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), who like everyone, makes Chris feel welcome, though Chris suspectes some things aren’t quite right, especially after meeting the black servants in the house and another black man at a big family-type gathering who doesn’t seem quite altogether. Fist pumps are not handshakes. Chris is prodded with some curious and even uncomfortable questions and quickly learns that things are not what they seem. In fact, he’s got himself in a living breathing nightmare where he might not survive.
Written and directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out is a unique little horror film that, like much of Peele’s comedic work with partner Keegan-Michael Key focuses on race though with a much darker edge … and as mentioned, horror. The movie was a huge box office hit, earning high praise from audiences and critics alike, who took to interpreting the film’s theme on a number of levels, though Peele himself has stated it is primarily about slavery. Either way, the movie is a disturbing observation and social commentary while still being sometimes funny but mostly really scary. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
Upon arriving at Rose’s family home, there is already an air of discomfort, even as the hospitality seems genuine. The family seems like a happy bunch, but Chris can’t get over the black housekeeper (Betty Gabriel) and groundskeeper (Marcus Henderson), both of whom who have peculiar, almost unnatural behaviors. Anyone for a late night sprint?
That night, after stepping outside for a smoke, Chris sits down with Missy, Rose’s mother, who is drinking tea while they share a conversation that gets deeper as they go on. Chris lightly mocks the notion of hypnotism but she takes it in stride and soon, she brings up his own mother who died when he was 11-year-old, all the while stirring her tea, scraping and tapping on the edge of the cup with the spoon.
Chris opens up about that fateful night when his mother didn’t come home from work and we flashback to him as a child watching TV and waiting. Adult Chris admits that back then he didn’t do anything when his mother failed to come home, thinking if he called someone it would make it real. And that’s already messed up, but Missy presses, commenting that he was scared, and that it wasn’t his fault. Chris is shown as a boy scratching at his bedposts in anxiety and then doing the same on the armrests of the chair with Missy. He is weeping.
And then comes the spin. She looks at and tells him to sink, to sink into the floor, to which he tries to desperately to stop with some aching pleas to “wait” but off he goes, suddenly falling down into the a black abyss, his younger self as well, dropping through his bed to the darkness. Missy calls it “The Sunken Place” and reaches to his paralyzed body and closes his eyes, committing his suspended consciousness into a total void. Next thing he knows, he is waking from a bad dream.
Any proper psychological thriller needs a hook and the best ones are those that allow the viewer to define their own interpretations. Think of The Babadook or Jacob’s Ladder, movies that play with psychotic breaks and mental manipulation. With Get Out, the Sunken Place is a terrifying space that looks a lot like the alien void in Scarlett Johansson‘s Under the Skin though with far less physical destruction. Both hold their victims in a state of suspension as if deep under water, and both feature an outside force looking in. One strips of you of your body, the other of your control.
The moment is a highly-traumatic one for Chris as he learns later in fact he was hypnotized (he even stops smoking), but it offers the viewer the first real stop into madness that the film is headed for, with a tantalizing setup as Missy quietly stirs her tea and probes Chris with questions. We are meant to ask what is going on and if it’s really a dream or not, and the scene works so well because we identify quickly with Chris and his initial disbelief. We, like him, are already shaken by an incident just prior while he was outside (one left for you to discover) and now he settles into this.
What’s remarkable is how fast it occurs. We don’t quite notice how susceptible Chris is to the effects of Missy’s powers with Chris sitting unmoving in the chair. Kaluuya delivers a powerfully affecting performance here as he begins to crumble, trying to laugh off and deflect what’s coming while his mind surrenders to the persuasive will of Missy. It’s troubling to watch and when she suddenly ‘sinks’ him into the Sunken Place, it makes for a jarring moment of fear for ourselves. This is some terrific filmmaking from Peele, who taps right into our baser instincts and has us falling right along with Chris.
Get Out is one of the those rare horror films that crosses over into mainstream well, a movie less about the graphic nature of the genre (though there are some tough moments) than the impact of its premise. We know it has a large, bold message about it, we recognize the tell tale signs, and yet it’s never so blunt as to be obvious. We think about it long after it’s over because while it plays out with many of the standards we expect, it is layered deeply in much, much more. And the discovery of Sunken Place makes for a great cinematic moment.