Sunday, February 26, 2017

WTF at the movies: a white dude tries to figure out what the hell happened to the last 45 minutes of "Get Out"

I don't normally like scary movies. It's not that I mind being scared; it's that most supposedly scary movies are too dumb to either cause fear or even keep me awake. In order to feel fear, I have to care about a character. That means the movie has to be smart, which most horror films are not. The terror in the film also has to have a correspondence to something we actually fear in real life.

Speaking of things I fear, I am terrified of Sunday afternoons as they turn into Sunday evenings, which bring on the inevitable existential angst of worrying about another week of work, school, bills, and the million ways to fail in life I might yet figure out. So, I grabbed Mrs. Heretic, got in the car, and headed to see Get Out, the new picture written by Key and Peele's Jordan Peele. From the previews, it seemed to meet the criterion of correspondence to a valid, real-world fear, although not a fear I personally have to worry about. It had about a million percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes, and that made it good enough to make it a Sunday distraction.

Spoilers ahead

The first hour lived up to the hype and expectations. It was a smart if slowly developing story built around the understandable fear of young black men in upper-class white surroundings. The tension felt by Chris, a too-cool-for-his-own-good photographer played with quiet understatement by Daniel Kaluuya, is ratcheted up because he's visiting the family of his white girlfriend. Surprise! She didn't tell them her boyfriend was black. Surprise! Her brother's a little bit of a nutcase. Surprise! The house is so secluded, the father boasts of their "total privacy."

The tension mounts as we meet Walter and Georgina, two anachronistically servantile black employees of the Armitage family. Their glassy stares and non-sequitur words let us know something isn't right. It turns out that Chris has showed up during some weird, white-as-rice party, where he is passed from one diarrhea-mouthed micro-aggressor to another. One fondles his muscles and wonders about the size of his phallus. Another asks if he can golf and quickly brings up Tiger Woods. It's like the script followed a Buzzfeed listicle of "Ten Things White People Shouldn't Say to African-Americans."

Chris talks occasionally with his friend Rod, a TSA agent who complains that his boss got mad at him for patting down an older lady. He is sure "the next 9-11 will be geriatric." He has paranoid conspiracy tendencies, and as such, he's kind of like a character from a Key and Peele sketch. He's convinced that Mrs. Armitage has hypnotized not only Chris, but all the other black people Chris is running into.

Shit gets weird

Chris's friend Rod is really just stating the natural suspicion of the audience when he gives his theories. I assumed, since the movie seemed to be a pretty sharp piece, that there was a major twist coming that would undo those assumptions. If the movie was truly great, it would turn not only the script on its head, but the audience's understanding of the racism that drove the mounting fear.

But it turns out, Rod is EXACTLY right about everything. Well, almost. The black men aren't being turned into sex slaves, but...wait for it...are being harvested for their strong, young bodies, into which the brains of older, decrepit and dying white men are put. Now, a tiny bit of the original inhabitant of the body remains, but it's mostly subsumed by the new host until some stimulus (such as a camera flash) brings out what's left of the original person. Chris was actually brought to the house by his girlfriend Rose to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

So I'm thinking, this sucks, right?

As the movie wound to the climax, I became really disinterested. The premise of a brain transplant seemed itself a transplant--in this case, of a B-movie Sci-Fi schlock device into a serious racial drama. Furthermore, Rod has suddenly gone full Kevin Hart, overrunning the bounds of mere minor comic relief and into full comedy movie mode as he gets laughed out of a police station going through his theory of what happened to his friend. The close of the movie is like Mystery Science Theater 3K, a mix of a stupid plot device and occasional comic commentary.

The only movie I can think of that ever pulled this much of a mid-movie switch was the Kevin Costner movie The War, which was 90 minutes of a close character study of a Vietnam vet's relationship with his son that suddenly turned into the end of Home Alone.

What happened to this movie? Did Peele just not know where he was going, so he decided to end it with a sketch that never made it into the show?

Theory of why the movie might not suck #1

As Mrs. Heretic and I drove home and talked about it, we kicked around a few ideas of how the ending of the movie might actually not be that terrible. The first has to do with the title. "Get out!" might be something a black audience in a Key and Peele skit would yell at a horror movie character. It's a stereotypical line in the mouth of the supposedly talkative black movie-goer. "What's wrong with you? Don't go in there? Get out!" Rod seems to echo this idea when he rescues Chris at the end: "I did tell you not to go in the house."

Maybe the idea is that there is no big twist when it comes to the fears of black men. They fear the obvious plot because the obvious plot is exactly what's going on. The movie is saying there is nothing subtle or imaginary about what young black men feel when they enter rich white enclaves.

Theory of why the movie might not suck #2

There is an alternate fear the movie might be playing with. It might not be as dangerous for black men to go into white neighborhoods as it once was, particularly if they are as compliant as Chris, willingly showing his I.D. to a cop who has no reason to ask for it.

The fear is more one of assimilation, of being literally overtaken by a white person living in a black body. Chris is as far from a militant black youth as one could get. He dates a white girl. He takes artsy photographs and knows wealthy art collectors. His name is Chris Washington, for crying out loud. The movie might be as much a commentary on the hypnotic effect of white culture on black self-identity as it is a reference to a threat of violence.

I'm not sure if it's good or just unusual

I'm still puzzling over what I think of this movie. This "review" is more an attempt to catalogue what I think the main three possible ways to think of it for me are. I'm not ready just yet to join the crowd praising it. Something didn't sit right about the answer Chris got from the man who hoped to occupy his body when he asked, "Why us? Why black people?" The man isn't really interested in the question. I feel like this was the movie's chance to give the audience an answer as to what it was about, but the movie itself didn't know the answer.

Maybe it doesn't have to. I suppose if you're in a position where you feel somewhere between uncomfortable and terrified, questions of why aren't that important. Deer don't ask "why" when cars run them over.

2 comments:

  1. I thought of another level this movie could be operating on today: a commentary on cultural appropriation. This is sort of the converse of the fear in theory #2 above. Rather than worrying that the culture will turn black people white inside, the greater threat might be that white culture will simply steal everything good from black culture.

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  2. I'm waiting for a moment when the black community is willing to interrogate its stereotypes and ideas about what whites are like. The truth is that even living in a culture dominated by one particular group does make one an expert at what the group thinks and lives. It only makes one an expert at the exterior repertoires, but the interiors remain mysterious, and some of the black intelligentsia simply believe they know the interior because they recognize the exterior.

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