It’s rare that any new movie gets me into theaters in March. Usually the early months of any given year are spent catching up on delayed releases from the previous one, whether they be indie festival films that are just being released then, or Oscar films that don’t come to my neck of the woods until January. Last year I did see one of my favorite films of 2016 in February, Hail, Caesar!, and this year Jordan Peele’s debut film makes me think there’s hope for the late winter/early spring movie season after all.
Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) seems like a pretty average guy, an African-American photographer going to meet his white girlfriend’s parents over the weekend. His girlfriend, Rose, assures him that everything will be fine; her parents might be kind of goofy, but that’s because they’re embarrassing parents, not racists. We in the audience have reason to fear outside of any “normal” subtle unconscious racism or social awkwardness that Chris might be expecting to encounter. In the first scene of the film we see another young black man (Lakieth Stanfield) lost in suburbia clubbed unconscious and stuffed into the trunk of the car.
The horror tropes start to pile up. Rose’s parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), do seem pretty normal, if awkward, people. At first. Turns out, Missy’s a psychologist that relies on hypnosis. And Rose didn’t realize this was the weekend the family has an annual get-together of all of Dean’s deceased father’s friends. With the arrival of Rose’s brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), the weird comments about Chris’s desirable physicality start. Most concerning of all, is the strangely inhuman behavior of the Armitage’s black servants, the gardener Walter (Marcus Henderson) and the housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel). As the weekend continues, it becomes increasingly apparent there’s some horrific link between Missy’s sinister hypnosis and the robotic behavior of the servants, and the appearance of the kidnap victim from the beginning. Chris begins to fear for his life, and attempts to make an escape from the Armitage’s menacing household.
For just about as long as I’ve been writing about movies, and assuredly longer than that, there’s been a growing concern with minority representation in films. This horror film, anchored by a black man, a demographic that is traditionally killed off first in horror films, promised to tackle a lot of these concerns. It does, just by existing. I’m not sure if my unfamiliarity with the horror genre (if it’s not artsy psychological horror it’s doubtful I’ve seen it), or my ignorance of the personal importance of seeing your experience represented onscreen prevents me from seeing the full genius of this movie, but I expect it does. I was able to pick up on a lot of important threads, but I’ve had trouble putting it all together. Something about how the exposition was dealt out seemed a little off putting to me. I’ve been thinking and reading about it and though I think it could have been done a little better, it doesn’t kill the movie by any means.
One has to stand in awe of the performances of this film and the tightness with which it is directed. I didn’t realize I had actually seen Kaluuya in Sicario back in 2015, but he has a smaller role as Emily Blunt’s partner in that movie. Peele makes great use of Kaluuya’s highly expressive face in this film, and Kaluuya is also able to do what the film does very well, which is switch back and forth from business as usual normal life to creepy and unsettling horror film on a dime. Williams is similarly very normal until she isn’t. Whitford and Keener make a great overly friendly in a creepy way pair. Outside the main thrust of the story is a hilarious Lil Rel Howery as Rod Williams of the TSA, comedic relief character and Chris’s best friend. The finely tuned performances are really amazing to behold here.
I may be on the wrong track with this film, and I’ll admit aspects of it were a bit baffling to me in the theater, but the more time goes by the more interesting the film becomes. What’s definitely clear though are the great performances, inventive concept, and disciplined pacing. Whatever Jordan Peele decides to make a movie about next, I’ll be in the audience for it.
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
For Further Reading: