Get Out: How to Turn Your Screenplay Into A Subversive, Genre-Bending Affair

Spoilers abound. If you haven’t seen Get Out, consider yourself warned. Also, what are you waiting for?

Get Out is that rare thing: an acclaimed horror film with a biting, satirical edge. Its Jordan Peele’s thoughtful middle-finger to the myth of the “post-racial” America. A film guaranteed to make you laugh, think, and jump out of your seat – often all at once.   

Unlike other recent horror-comedy fusions like Cabin In The Woods, which continually escalates into an explicit joke, Get Out chooses to take itself a little more seriously. For the most part, the film plays it straight, albeit curbed with a sprinkle of saviness and self-awareness that clues the audience in to the fact that they’re not watching a traditional horror film.

From the outset, it’s clear that there’s an inherent comedy—and a biting politial commentary—woven into the script, though these elements never threaten to dominate the story being told. It’s similar, in a way, to District 9, which blended science fiction and documentary filmmaking techniques with what was essentially an allegory on South African apartheid.

Likewise, a look into cinema’s history reveals no shortage of genre-bending, social commentary infused stories. From Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Fly and Videodrome, to Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. Not all are as distinctly funny as Get Out, of course, but each offers up a similarly subversive blend.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it looks, and as writers, we know first-hand how difficult it is to weave political commentary organically through a story without resorting to heavy-handed symbolism and on-the-nose dialogue. And while horror and comedy are often closer than we care to admit, Get Out’s particular balancing act is no less impressive.

So, without further adieu, let’s take a closer look at how they pulled it off.     

1) Curbing Familiar Tropes

Get Out opens with an explicit scene of horror: A black man wandering through a suburban neighborhood at night until an assailant disables him and snatches him away.

And then, almost immediately, we’re treated to a quirky tune, which plays over the kidnapping. This dissonance of the ghastly and comical, combined with the thematically-potent, sets the tone for the entire movie.

Get Out begins with a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner set-up that’s closer to Meet the Parents than The Exorcist. Chris, our hero, is off to meet his girlfriend Rose’s family. Chris asks Rose if the family knows he’s black. Rose reassures him that he has nothing to worry about. 

But of course, unless they’ve already forgotten the horrific prologue, the audience already has some idea of what awaits, and this sense of dramatic irony places a heightened sense of expectation on every scene that follows.  

The film plays with this expectation at every turn, including the infamous “subverted scare” in which the gamekeeper runs toward Chris, perhaps about to clobber him… only to simply pass him by. It’s an ingenious moment that works primarily because of how effectively it plays off our expectations in an intentionally awkward, anti-climactic sort of way. 

2) Real-World Resonance

While telling a fictional story seemingly far removes from reality, Get Out’s social commentary nevertheless severs as a mirror to real-life problems. A few of these parallels are more direct in a “straight from the headlines” sort of way. Others are less obvious – yet just as sinister in their familiarity. In general, these thematic manifestations are rarely communicated outright, but are instead mostly developed through situational similarities that make the real-world parallels obvious.

In the first trailer for Get Out, one of the first snippets to call attention to the film’s racial commentary involved a police probing Chris for his driver’s license, despite the fact that Chris clearly wasn’t behind the wheel. In the film itself, this moment plays to our knowledge of racial profiling in a situational way, without the need for on-the-nose moralizing.

Likewise, when Chris attends a party consisting of mostly white guests, he is greeted by micro-aggressions and moments of diet-racism in the form of backhanded compliments and the odd gawking stare. Uncomfortable but trying to retain a smile, Chris never deflects any of these. His coyness is ingenious. The racism is of the unconscious, subdued type. The insensitivity is buried in the compliments themselves, which is a farcry from the usual “loudmouth, hate-spitting racist.” Through these scenes, Peele exposes a petty outlandishness, one that’s almost funny, but ultimately hints at a bigger issue and a forthcoming consequence.

3) Effective Use of Archetypes

In the film, Chris is close friends with a TSA officer named Rod. He’s a quirky, conspiracy-theorist type – the sort of comic relief who continually chimes in with his not-so-outrageous paranoia as Chris gradually comes to terms with the bizarre nature of the Armitage family. A running gag is his vocal “sex slave” theory, which reliably induces laughter in the viewers. But as goofy as he is, he’s mentally active at dissecting the reality of his friend’s current predicament.

Rod’s the film’s embodiment of the “fool” archetype – a jester of sorts who gives voice to truths that others do not see (or take seriously). It’s no wonder then that he serves as the perfect mouthpiece for the film’s social commentary. He also gives voice to the dramatic irony we, as an audience, are experiencing, processing the whys and the hows, all the while deducing the more sinister motives at play.

Of course, Rod is not clairvoyant and he doesn’t spell out every detail beat-for-beat. But he is an effective instrument for tying together plot and theme, often in the form of tantalizing mysteries and horrifying possibilities that continually suggest at something deeper, beyond our comprehension.

It’s hard not to be swept away in the Get Out’s unique blend of the funny, horrifying, and thematically potent. For screenwriters in particular, it’s make for an incredibly successful case-study in crafting a story that works on multiple levels. One that delivers keen political insight through subverted tropes, and effective archetypes, without ever beating its audience over the head.

______________

Caroline Cao is a Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of Texas. When not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or a pilot screenplay about space samurais, she enjoys acting in cheesy improv performances for BETA Theater, experimenting with ramen noodles, and hollering vocal flash fics on Instagram. She runs a blog with writing and scripting services and lends her voice to Birth.Movies.Death and The Mary Sue.