'Get Out': Jordan Peele's horror debut takes aim at racism in white liberal America

In the horror movie Get Out, a guy about to meet his girlfriend’s folks for the first time asks if she has told them he is black.

Rose (Allison Williams) laughs and tosses her hair (I think she uses Privilege, by L’Oreal) and says no, and assures him they’re so liberal that they simply won’t care.

Boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) pretends to agree, but the doubt etched in his face says something else: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Those fears only multiply as they leave Manhattan and head to mansion country, where the roads are patrolled by suspicious policemen, the grounds tended by black servants. Chris is ill at ease, plagued by a dread that this environment is unique to him: In Connecticut, no one can hear you scream.

The premise in Get Out could easily be mined for laughs, and that’s what many viewers will expect. Writer-director Jordan Peele is best known as a comedian (he was the Peele in Comedy Central's Key & Peele), but he is also a horror-movie fiend, and is aiming here for the escalating, vise-tightening tension of movies he’s admired (his influences include Rosemary’s Baby, and he’s named his female lead Rose).

He’s chosen the durable formula of the protagonist who slowly realizes he’s stumbled into a coven, cult, or den of vampires, and adds the novel element of racial paranoia – the story grows from Peele's own fears of being a black man in a white world.

And the way he presents that world is also novel. You know what to expect from a rural weirdo with a mask and a chain saw, but what awaits the black man in liberal enclaves bulging with self-advertising Obama voters?

That’s what Chris wants to know when Rose drags him to her parents' posh home, which is full of casual professional-class wealth, including the black servants they keep on from a sense (so they say) of noblesse oblige.

Dad (Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon who works clumsily to calm Chris by being “down” with all things progressive. His psychiatrist wife (Catherine Keener) is disarmingly embarrassed by this, as is Rose, who’s already saved her boyfriend from an unfriendly cop. Chris, though, remains restive, and is distracted by the odd behavior of “the help,” who are robotic and docile.

I wish Peele had been more careful in the way he introduces and establishes a tone for these characters. Their Stepford mannerisms are at too high a pitch, and what should be muffled hints of what’s to come register too loudly.

Other elements work nicely —  such as the way he compares the cues and focal points of hypnotism to the subtle workings of racism. Another subplot reflects Peele’s apparent ambivalence at having his sensibility subsumed by cultural gatekeepers. It’s clever stuff. Still, while I admired the conceptual daring of the movie, I confess I was never actually scared.

The strong points of Get Out are its ideas and construction -- plot threads planted Shyamalan-style throughout are suddenly and satisfyingly yanked together in the worth-waiting-for conclusion. The scene also gets a big, well-earned macabre laugh.

Peele may turn out to be a great director of horror, but to get there he needn’t abandon his instinct for comedy -- he blends the two impulses in the final moments of Get Out, when the movie seems to find the mood it’s been searching for all along.