Warning: Major SPOILERS for Get Out ahead
As one half of the groundbreaking comedy duo Key & Peele, Jordan Peele has emerged as one of America’s foremost comedy voices on the subject of race issues in the popular culture. But while his new horror-thriller Get Out indeed casts a dark satirical eye on many of those same issues, this time he’s not joking around. The film frames the familiar anxieties of modern black/white intercultural awkwardness as a potential mask for something much more sinister, and the result is a suspenseful, genuinely scary film that would almost certainly still be effective with some other topical reference point at its center but still cuts extra deep because of the one it has.
It also plays fair. Despite the ultimate reveal of what’s been going on taking Get Out in an unexpected, genre-bending direction, all of the teases, misdirections and hidden-in-plain-sight clues fit together logically as the answers to a satisfying mystery story. Even still, if you’ve just come back from the film nursing any lingering questions about what it was all supposed to mean, here’s the place to go back over everything:
In the film’s “cold open,” a yet-unnamed Black man (Lakeith Stanfield) who has become lost in an eerily quiet upscale suburban neighborhood finds himself being followed by an anonymous car in a scenario clearly meant to evoke memories of recent vigilante shooting incidents like the shooting of Trayvon Martin. When he stops to confront his pursuer, however, he finds himself instead confronting a strange figure wearing a medieval-style iron helmet who puts him into a headlock, renders him unconscious and stuffs him into the trunk.
The main storyline, unfolding immediately thereafter, follows aspiring photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as he undertakes a trip with his girlfriend of five months, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), to spend the weekend with her well-to-do parents – whom Chris will be meeting for the first time. This is a prospect that’s making him nervous because Rose has not informed them that he’s Black, which she assures him will not be an issue, but he’s increasingly certain will not be the case. While en route their car strikes a deer on the road, drawing the attentions of a police officer whom Rose upbraids for racially profiling Chris.
As promised, Rose’s parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) are a pair of properly-tolerant liberals perfectly happy for their daughter to be dating a Black man – in fact, they’re a little too happy. They immediately shower Chis with earnest stories about how the family’s late patriarch was a marathon runner who qualified second behind Jesse Owens for the U.S. Olympic team, how they desperately wish they could’ve voted for Barack Obama a third time and even the twinge of shame they feel at being rich white people with a pair of Black servants (handyman Walter and housekeeper Georgina). It’s all just a bit… “much,” and that’s before Chris meets Caleb Landry Jones as Rose’s aggressive lacrosse-playing younger brother, who muses about how Chris’ “genetic makeup” would make him a great mixed martial-arts fighter, and who likes to put people in headlocks (uh-oh…)
Things only get weirder from there: Rose’s mom is a hypnotherapist who’s a little too eager to help cure Chris of his smoking habit through an unsettling procedure that involves sending his consciousness into an out-of-body state she calls “the sunken place.” He can’t turn to Walter and Georgina for sympathy – they’re strangely detached, alternately seeming to be in a trance or prone to odd behaviors: She likes to stare at her own reflection, he runs at top speed around the house (marathon-style) for exercise in the middle of the night. They both also talk and behave “differently,” as though they’re much older and more compliant than they should be given their relative ages in 2017; as Chris puts it while venting over the phone to his friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), “It feels like they missed the revolution.”
When a group of the Armitage’s other wealthy friends show up for a garden party, they also all behave in just-inappropriate-enough ways; over-complimenting Chris’s physique, asking about the “advantages” of African-American heritage and gushing about their admiration for Black celebrities like Tiger Woods. While Chris and Rose are out for a walk, we glimpse the partygoers playing a game of “bingo” that slowly reveals itself to be a kind of auction where they seem to be placing bids on Chris – which would be unnerving enough without Rod having already theorized that Rose’s mother is hypnotizing Black people to become sex-slaves (or, rather, that Chris has wandered into “Some serious Eyes Wide Shut s–t!”)
While at the party, Chris meets and tries to start up a conversation with the one Black guest besides himself – the husband of a (much older) white woman. The audience is meant to already recognize him as Lakeith Stanfield’s character from the opening, now acting and dressing (there’s no other way to put it) like an old white man; but Chris thinks he recognizes him too: As a friend from he and Rod’s old neighborhood. When he tries to sneak a photo to send to Rod, the camera-flash triggers a kind of psychological breakdown in the man, and he starts shoving Chris and telling him to “Get out!”
Sure enough, Rod is able to identify the photo as their old acquaintance, but there’s a problem: He’s supposedly a “missing person” (Rod’s attempts to convince the police of his theories are… less successful). Having now discovered a hidden box containing “selfies” of Rose posing with dozen other young Black men (including “Walter” and one woman – “Georgina”) and accepting that he is indeed in real danger, Chris tries to flee… but it’s too late. Mrs. Armitage’s hypnosis has rendered him incapable of resisting, and he’s been “selected” for a sinister experiment the only escape from which is a desperate, blood-soaked gambit involving mad science, illegal surgery, brutal beatdowns and a hunting rifle.
WHAT WAS ACTUALLY GOING ON
As revealed by a television broadcast shown to Chris after he’s hypnotized for the final time after his initial escape-attempt, the deeper backstory is that the Armitage Family and their friends are members of a cult-like group called The Order of The Coagula, who had sought (under the leadership of Rose’s mad scientist grandfather – the one who placed second to Jesse Owens) the secret of extended-life through brain-transplantation.
Rose’s parents (accomplished mad scientists in their own right) had managed to realize that the Coagula dream through a combination of his surgical skills and her hypnotism. As it turns out, the transplantation will only stick if the original consciousness of the “patient” remains in the original system i.e. regressed but “alive” in the hypnosis-induced Sunken Place. Rose and her brother are part of the operation as “wranglers” who procure Black people to be auctioned-off as replacement-bodies by the Order – him via abduction by the metal-masked stalker, and her by seducing Black men (and possibly also “Georgina” – it’s unclear whether their photo indicates a friendship or more) and luring them to her parents.
Speaking of Walter and Georgina, they were only pretending to be the Armitage’s live-in help as part of the ruse to trap Chris. They’re actually Rose’s Grandma and Grandpa inhabiting their “new” young, Black bodies – hence “Walter” (who we’re told “almost got over” placing behind Jesse Owens) being so fond of showing off his running skills now that he’s got a… well, a more Jesse-esque body of his own. Likewise, the disturbed man at the party was “really” the original husband of the older woman. The flash from Chris’ camera, however, is evidently able to scramble the signal and momentarily release the mind’s original consciousness from The Sunken Place, which he ultimately uses to his advantage in order to escape. He almost blows it by stopping to rescue an injured Georgina (not realizing what she really is) because she reminds him of his mother – memories of whom Rose’s mom had exploited as an “in” for her hypnosis.
DID CHRIS ACTUALLY ESCAPE?
At the very least, he didn’t die (or get hypnotized out of existence) at the Armitages’ as was planned – though it’s not clear whether or not anyone is going to believe his story with Rose’s family killed, their house (and thus much of the evidence) on fire, and Rose herself left near-death in the middle of the street. When Rod pulls up in what we first assume is a police car (it’s actually a vehicle from his TSA job at the airport), it’s mainly meant as a final “gotcha” at the expense of audience expectations i.e. the cops showing up would be a “good” sign in any horror film but this one. But it’s also a reminder that the real cops didn’t believe Rod when he went to them for help.
It’s also true that the extent of the conspiracy is unknown. We meet three post-transplantation victims (not including Chris) but it’s unknowable how many times this has been done before. Rose’s cache of photographs suggests almost a dozen in total from her “wrangling” alone, and who knows how many more have been procured by the brother or if they were even the only ones with that particular assignment. Chris certainly wasn’t meant to be the last – prior to his big escape scene, we see Rose up in her bedroom Googling “Top NCAA Prospects,” presumably searching for her next target… and the audience never officially sees her die.
WHY WERE THEY ONLY ABDUCTING BLACK PEOPLE?
This is where Get Out hits on “the message” and thus also the twist within its twist: The Order aren’t traditional racists – or, at least, not the type of racists Hollywood is traditionally more comfortable calling out and posturing against. They aren’t neo-Nazis, Klansmen or White Nationalists. There are no white hoods, Confederate flags, swastikas or even a “Make America Great Again” cap anywhere to be found. These are “good” White People: proud, well-off and self-satisfied “Liberals” who are very likely being completely sincere about their Obama votes, their love of Black celebrities and their appreciation for (and desire to “connect” with) Black culture.
But that’s precisely the issue. Peele’s film is using a well-worn horror-movie narrative (specifically, the narrative of The Stepford Wives – a paranoid 1970s chiller in which a women discovers that the men of her suspiciously-perfect small town are replacing their “difficult” feminist wives with obedient, submissive 1950s-style robot duplicates) in order to needle a very specific subset of White racism: “Nice” Liberals who are insistent of their non-racism because they admire an abstract ideal of Blackness while not actually engaging or regularly encountering any actual Black people.
The Armitages and their friends admire Black culture, Black stars, the Black ex-President – pretty much anyone Black they know from television or the movies. Not only don’t they mind their children dating Black people, they’d be proud to be married to a Black spouse themselves! After all, like they keep telling Chris at the party: being Black is “fashionable” now, especially since Black people are innately “cool” and naturally more athletically gifted – opinions they probably see as not only being not racist but the exact opposite thereof. The guy who “bought” Chris’ body quite literally “doesn’t see race” – he’s blind, and desires what he’s been told is Chris’ excellent eye for photography. They’re so progressively in love with “Blackness” that they’d like nothing better than to be Black themselves – they just don’t happen to see actual, individual Black people as “human” enough to have any moral compunctions about enslaving their minds and hijacking their bodies in order to increase their “totally not racist”-ness.
As social commentary goes, that’s some pretty tough, scathing stuff; all-but certain to provoke maximum discomfort in “good liberal” white audiences who may have turned up to cheer for the hero putting the beatdown on the kind of “evil redneck caveman” racist Hollywood more often deploys as a “safe” vision of bigotry and instead see more of themselves in Get Out’s villains than they’d care to grapple with. But horror movies with a message falter when they aren’t willing to play for keeps, and Get Out is aiming to send its audience home with something to think about beyond the big scares – though whether it actually connects will be up for each individual viewer to decide.
Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele, is now in theaters.