Them (One Thing I Almost Didn’t Like About Get Out)

I finally worked up the nerve to watch Get Out, and I really liked it. It was a close call, apparently.

(I’m going to avoid spoilers until the second half of this post. It’s remarkable how I managed to go about two years without having this movie ruined for me, and I think it’s vastly improved by going in as ignorant as possible!)

It’s been about two years since Get Out was released, and over a year since I bought it for home streaming, but I’ve only just watched it this week, mostly to make sure I’ve seen it before Jordan Peele’s new movie Us.

I could make excuses, but the main reason I haven’t watched it is because I’ve been scared of it. I love thinking about and post-analyzing horror movies but rarely enjoy watching them, at least if they’re at all serious in tone. I’ve got extremely low tolerance for gore and depictions of torture, as well. If I’m being honest, there are parts of Key and Peele that were almost too uncomfortable for me to watch, so how bad would it be without the necessity to be funny, and without basic cable censors? I’ve asked several times online for a summation of how violent/gory/scary Get Out is, but I always got mixed answers (because it’s subjective). My take, for anyone else who’s been interested but scared to watch it:

  • It’s excellent and deserves all the praise it’s gotten
  • It’s only got one real jump scare
  • Gore is minimal
  • It’s very funny in places, but isn’t a horror comedy
  • The scariest moments are all psychological horror and tension

Since it’s been so long since it was released, it seems like every white person on the internet has already posted their opinions and analysis of it, several times over. I don’t have much new to say, but I can at least be another white person on the internet and give my personal take on it.

Inclusion: I’ve said before that I was late to the party on both Inside Amy Schumer and Key and Peele, because I wasn’t sure that either show was “for” me, as someone who isn’t a woman and isn’t black. As a white liberal NPR-listening American, though, I’m 100% sure that Get Out is “for” me. I’m not exclusively the target audience, obviously, but I’m unquestionably part of it, and that certainty is actually pretty nice for once.

Even if Peele hadn’t explicitly said as much, it’s clear that the movie is a reaction to those of us who wanted to believe that the Obama Administration was a milestone, and that America was making progress towards becoming a “post-racial” society, even if we had a long way to go. This movie seems not only to reject that idea completely, but to make us question whether “post-racial” is a noble goal at all. The idea is really only appealing to those of us whose identities wouldn’t be assimilated — when white people say “post-racial” what we’re assuming (usually unconsciously) is actually “everybody looks different but is still essentially like me.”

Representation: I’ve been looking forward to Us as well — or at least, having every intention of seeing it and then chickening out to watch Captain Marvel again instead — because I still like the idea of intelligent horror movies and because I think Lupita Nyong’o is amazing. When I read the Rotten Tomatoes synopsis:

Haunted by an unexplainable and unresolved trauma from her past and compounded by a string of eerie coincidences, Adelaide feels her paranoia elevate to high-alert as she grows increasingly certain that something bad is going to befall her family. […] Us pits an endearing American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.

I was embarrassed, because I realized there was no mention in the synopsis, or in any of the trailers, that the main characters were black. I’d just assumed that Peele’s next movie after Get Out would be another example of social movie commentary about race, and I didn’t consider that it might not have anything to do with the protagonists being black. Apart from being made by a filmmaker who’s loved watching movies all his life but rarely seen himself reflected in the characters.

I haven’t heard much about Us other than that it’s really good, and now I kind of don’t want it to be social commentary. I’d love to see an example in horror where the endearing American family isn’t white by default.

Empathy: As much as I want to understand all the issues that surround representation in the media, there’s always going to be a limit to how much I “get it” since I’ve very rarely been in a situation where I’m the only white person. Even trying to go the intersectional route and comparing it to growing up gay surrounded by media that 99.99% for and about straight people, it’s nowhere near a perfect comparison.

I can say that during those few times when I’ve been in a racial minority, there’s been this undercurrent of unease that I just can’t intellectualize away, no matter how hard I try. I haven’t ever felt threatened, just different. And every time I’ve thought, “this is just weird,” it’s been accompanied by the realization, “but temporary for me, while they have to feel like this almost all of the time, and wonder if they’re physically in danger on top of that.” It’s profoundly othering, in a time when I’m doing my best to by empathetic, and it’s perpetually frustrating and discouraging for anyone who believes in a future where we’ll all just be comfortable around each other. I want to be the type of person who just gets it, but I’m probably more the type of person who subconsciously keeps saying “my man.”

Which is an idea that Get Out handles so perfectly, it’s astounding. The movie presents the perfect visual representation of being simultaneously marginalized and exposed, which refers back to the image of watching people on TV who aren’t like you, with the addition of being powerless to stop it.

It’s a huge part of why the premise is so perfectly suited to a horror film, which leads to my favorite part of the movie, which is the final scene, which makes any discussion of it a huge spoiler.

Apart from Catherine Keener’s straight-up bone-chilling performance in the hypnotism scene, my favorite thing about Get Out is its final scene. In particular, how it’s a perfectly-realized horror movie moment.

The premise of Get Out would’ve fit in perfectly as an extended sketch on Key and Peele, but it would’ve been mostly forgettable. Presenting it as a horror movie — even a satirical one — is crucial to giving it depth, because of the play between empathy and distance that’s a key part of horror movies.

You spend most of a horror movie identifying closely with the protagonist while simultaneously reminding yourself that that’s not you. And in fact, its frustratingly not you, as you’re forced to watch a character making stupid decisions that you wouldn’t make yourself. Peele has said the title Get Out was a reference to how black audiences watch horror movies in theaters and scream at the main characters to get out of the murder house. Winston Duke has said the same thing while promoting Us, but I think it’s a universal part of how all audiences process horror movies, even if we’re not all equally vocal.

So at the end of Get Out, we’ve been right with Chris as he goes through hell trying to escape the house and get past all the surviving Armitages in one form or another. Normally, at this point in a horror movie, there’s a huge sense of relief as the monsters are all dead and the protagonist has survived. The worst that can happen is the sudden jump-scare reappearance of the bad guy who wasn’t actually dead, and as much as I like the potential image of Steven Root lumbering around with his skull open, the movie has already proven that it’s above cheap stunts like that.

In fact, horror audiences know better than to leave a villain still alive, and Get Out knows that we know that. So Chris goes to finish off the still-breathing Rose, and it seems necessary. But as soon as we get a shot of a black man over the body of a white woman, strangling her, we’re instantly reminded that this is a horror movie where the usual roles are reversed. Any sense that the threat was over and he’d be rescued is immediately replaced with the dread that things can only get worse.

So when a police car shows up, the audience is immediately split. All of us white viewers are instantly reminded that we’re not Chris, no matter how much we’ve been identifying with him and rooting for him to make it out okay. We’re reminded viscerally that the thing we associate with safety is inescapably seen as a potential threat to non-whites in America.

The movie shows us Chris and Rose’s faces, and they both instantly get it: for her, it’s relief, and for him it’s resigned dread. I think it’s something that we all think we understand intellectually, but don’t fully get it until we’re forced to empathize with someone who can’t see the police as rescue. (And who’s been told his whole life that that’s just the way it is, and it’s not really a problem).

I thought the final reveal was key: horror movies are all about anticipating the audience’s expectations and then subverting them. Rod is the one person in the world who could see that violent scene and really understand it. He’s been the audience surrogate the whole movie, saying out loud all of the conclusions we’ve been jumping to as we’ve been trying to figure out what exactly was going on. I thought it was the perfect way to bring everyone in the audience back together, and a masterful final stroke for a genre that depends on being able to read and predict an audience.

So I was super disappointed to learn (while Google searching for an image from the movie) that the ending wasn’t the keystone of the script, and that an alternate was written and shot. (And presented on the internet with commentary from Jordan Peele).

In the alternate ending, it is the cops who show up, and they do arrest Chris, and he is hopelessly trapped in prison — filmed in a long line of other black men in prison — with the only consolation being that he knows he put an end to the body-stealing scheme. Which, granted, is probably a more realistic ending (albeit “realistic” in a movie which involves a body-stealing scheme) and is probably the gut-punch that complacent audiences need to see. But I would’ve hated it. And even knowing it exists lessens my appreciation of the movie somewhat.

The thing that disappoints me isn’t that the alternate ending is bleak, but that it’s so predictable. The constant interplay between what you expect to happen and what actually happens is crucial to a horror movie; it’s the spark that makes them work. The cinematic cut of Get Out ends with a long sequence of set-ups and subversions that starts with Chris’s escape from the basement and just keeps building on itself as images are called back one after the other. The deer head, the tea cup and spoon, the car and the knight helmet, the grandparents, Chris’s inability to kill the wounded deer. It’s exhilarating because it’s like a volley between the moviemakers and the audience: I showed you this, you assumed that, it finally pays off with this, which leads to that….

But as soon as I saw the image of Chris over Rose’s body, I instantly pictured a conclusion of cops showing up and either killing him, or his going to prison. The thrill of the end came from seeing that dread be subverted. Seeing it actually play out is like seeing a spectacular 15-minute volley end with one player just calmly watching the ball land on the ground exactly where you’d expect it to hit. And then saying, “That’s pretty bleak, huh? Makes you think.”

I don’t think the original/alternate ending would’ve ruined the movie for me, but it would have knocked my impression of it from “near-genius” down to “clever.” The ending we got is better, and it happens to be more optimistic. Not just because the protagonist makes it out okay, but because instead of showing an ending of what would probably actually happen to someone like him, it rewards the audience with what it knows we’ve all been wanting to see, recognizing that there really is a universal “us.”