“A young African-American man visits his Caucasian girlfriend’s mysterious family estate.” — IMDb
I was excited the second I heard that Jordan Peele was directing a horror movie. I have been a huge fan of his ever since I first saw Key & Peele and the idea of someone so hilarious and so clearly brilliant in his wit and intelligence and ability to shatter social and racial norms delving into my favorite genre — horror — was way too awesome. I saw it in theaters just a few days after its release — I am normally not a theater-goer, honestly, but I made an exception for this, and it was so worth it.
The story centers around Chris Washington (played by the absolutely incredible Daniel Kaluuya) venturing out for a weekend trip with his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), to visit her family at her parents’ estate in the woods. He is initially hesitant when he finds out that Rose hasn’t told her family that he is black, but she is quick to assure him that they are anything but racist. The trip starts out innocent enough but it devolves quickly into something brooding and terrifying.
** SPOILERS! **
I think one of the things I loved the most about this movie was that it dealt with racism in a much more subtle way than is often done. This wasn’t a movie about a black man up against a group of neo-Nazis, or a bunch of hillbilly rednecks waving a Confederate flag, or even people who are blatantly racist. It showed a much more subtle — and in some ways, a much more sinister — breaking down of his humanity in the sense that the people involved all seemed to be extremely liberal, the type of people you’d shop beside at Whole Foods or who would make a point to donate to the ACLU, or who “would have voted for Obama a third time if they could have”. The signs are very slight at first, and almost more annoying to Chris than anything else, but there’s this sense of something terrible bubbling under the surface that is extremely well done — you feel a sense of dread throughout the entire film.
The groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson), and the maid, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), are two fantastic characters as we struggle for a majority of the movie to figure out their story. Both of which are a mystery to Chris, too, as he tries to find some connection with them but fails at every turn, only becoming more perplexed. The scene with Chris and Georgina as she apologizes for unplugging his phone — the look of restrained terror and desperation in her eyes, and the single tear rolling down her cheek — is particularly powerful. And when we find out at the end that they are, in fact, Rose’s grandparents in their new, youthful bodies… SO MANY of the earlier odd moments click into place and it is just brilliant.
My favorite scene was easily the odd hypnosis encounter that Chris has with Rose’s mother (played by Catherine Keener). Not only is it a treat to get to see Kaluuya sort of one-on-one — I’ve been a fan of his ever since seeing him in Black Mirror and he just has this intense, vulnerable charm that I love — but the visuals they chose for his hypnotic state are brilliant and awe-inspiring and terrifying all at once. Like Chris is falling backwards through some kind of open space with a much more viscous quality, we hear noises become muffled and the fear behind his eyes intensifies as Mrs. Armitage tells him that he is now “in the sunken place” — cue my whole week’s worth of shuddering.
The hypnosis, which just seems like an extremely odd occurrence at first, becomes much more relevant later on as we start to piece together what is really going on behind the scenes in this seemingly calm, collected community. I think the reveal that Rose was in on it all along — first with Chris finding the photos of her past boyfriends, who she said had all been white, and then with Rose drawing out the process of passing her car keys off to him — was shocking, personally. You really believe that she’s innocent in all of this, but her complicity adds another layer of reflection on the issues of racism and seeming trusted allies as a whole.
Peele takes such a classic horror technique — ramping up an already existing, and justified, fear into something even darker and more twisted — and applies it for a chilling reveal as we find out that not only are these family members bidding for Chris, they are bidding to BECOME him. He’s taken the idea of cultural appropriation to a terrifying new height with the concept of upper class white liberals LITERALLY taking over the body of a young black man, whether it be for his physical capabilities, his youth, his “coolness”, whatever their fancy may be. He sits strapped to a plush armchair as an old, fat TV’s screen shows him messages from the blind art dealer who wishes to occupy his body and mind, drifting in and out of conscious and hypnosis. It’s enough to make your skin crawl, especially as we see Mr. Armitage (played by Bradley Whitford) prepping his at-home operating room.
The ending explodes into what is really the only physical violence and gore in the entire movie as Chris makes his way out of the house. The gore was well done in the sense that it never seemed gratuitous, and added a few awesome moments of “holy shit!” to an already intense movie. Chris’s friend, Rod (the effortlessly hilarious LilRel Howery), helps with his rescue, which added a glimmer of hope when I absolutely thought the film would end with Chris’s arrest and incarceration for the murder of Rose and her family. Apparently Peele had intended for it to end that way initially, but decided the film needed a happier ending after a string of high-profile shootings of black citizens by police occurred during production. It’s interesting to think of the different feel the movie would have had if it had, indeed, ended with such a realistic conclusion.
Overall, SO GREAT. I am absolutely amazed but not at all surprised that Peele would deliver such a sharply intelligent, relevant, darkly realistic, and occasionally hilarious movie for his first go as a director. I am waiting with bated breath to see what he comes up with next.
Rating: 8.5/10 | Director: Jordan Peele | Writer: Jordan Peele | Music: Michael Abels | Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Root, LilRel Howery