Destined to go down as the most talked about film of 2017 (as well as one of the best), Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a deceptively tricky piece of cinema. On the one hand, it’s a genre piece, yet it defies reductive analysis and easy categorization. It layers horror and suspense with satire and dark comedy, weaving them together in a complex balancing act that’s as unsettling as Rosemary’s Baby, while saying as much about race as Dr. Strangelove said about war.
And unsurprisingly, it’s the script’s social commentary that has dominated much of the discussion surrounding it. It’s arguably what catapulted the picture from last year’s Sundance Film Festival straight into the cultural zeitgeist – not to mention major end of year awards consideration.
The film opens simply enough, with Chris, a young black man, traveling to a predominantly white, upper-middle class town in order to meet his interracial girlfriend’s parents for the first time. But what begins as an awkward weekend with the in-laws eventually descends into Stepford Wives territory, with Chris finding himself in the middle of a village-wide, race-driven conspiracy.
Yet, for a script as narratively ambitious as Get Out’s, the key to its success is decidedly simple and easily overlooked. But before we get to that, let’s take a look at this script-to-screen breakdown of one of the film’s most memorable sequences:
This scene represents the fulcrum of the entire film – its turning point, so to speak. Until now, the true horror of Chris’s predicament remains a point of ambiguity. Sure, we’re treated to brief moments of punctuated strangeness (and overt racism), but in general, the first half of Get Out plays it close to the vest. Until Chris takes the plunge into ‘The Sunken Place’, the audience has no idea just how far Peele intends to push the envelope – both in terms of theme and style.
It’s a bold shift, and for a story that up until now has played it relatively straight, one would assume a hypnosis-induced descent into the abyss might risk the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief. Yet, incredibly, the opposite effect is achieved. Despite the sharp subversion of our expectations, fans and critics alike point to this scene as one of the film’s strongest moments.
The reason? Speaking with IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast, Jordan Peele references author Ira Levin’s method of storytelling for slowly but surely immersing audiences in the film’s strangeness:
“It’s this idea of taking baby steps towards the eventual horrific conclusion… by pointing out that these little steps into weirdness are true to real life.”
For a film as thematically and stylistically complex as Get Out, it remains decidedly old-fashioned in its moment-to-moment visual grammar. And that’s as apparent on screen as it is on the page. There’s a classical approach to suspense that’s especially noticeable here, as the hypnosis sequence builds towards its final, surreal plunge. Watch the way the film returns again and again to the teaspoon as it continues to stir and clink against the glass. Or the way Chris clutches at the arms of his chair as he’s drawn deeper and deeper into a hypnotic daze.
It’s this piecemeal, baby-step approach to storytelling that effectively propels us from Get Out’s Hitchockian first half to a final act that has more in common with something directed by David Lynch or Roman Polanski. And no sequence in the film distills that transition as perfectly as this one.
The value of Get Out’s slow-burning, knife-twisting approach to sequences like this one cannot be understated. It’s classic, dramatically sound storytelling, and it sets a foundation that empowers Peele to take tremendous narrative risks without sacrificing entertainment value or risking audience immersion. Like Chris, the audience is left vulnerable, expecting only the unexpected.
Frustrated by the dark, frozen winters of Canada, Jeff Legge spent his earliest years indoors nurturing a life-long obsession with the movies. Later, he moved to Los Angeles where he cut his teeth as a script reader while completing an MFA at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He does not recommend playing Scene-It with him, though he does appreciate a good ego boost.