Friday, May 12, 2017

The confused messaging of Get Out

It's never a good idea to talk about what a movie "should have been." All conventional wisdom about reviewing a movie endorses meeting it on its own terms, rating the movie you have in front of you and not some hypothetical permutation of that movie that might have done x, y or z differently.

Yet we all do it. And that's not only because a central part of reviewing movies is quibbling with decisions, and implicitly if not actually proposing alternate ways of accomplishing the movie's goals.

I suppose the sin comes out as a matter of degrees. You can talk about small adjustments to a movie, but you can't suggest sweeping changes, or else you're talking about a different movie altogether.

And yet I can't help but wish sweeping changes upon Get Out ... while still wanting it to stay more or less the same movie.

I'll try to explain. But first, some background.

I have been keeping up the cone of silence around Get Out like around no recent movie I can remember, and that's probably because I've waited longer for the release of Get Out here in Australia than any movie I can remember. It was basically nine weeks between the February 24th release of the movie in the U.S. and the May 4th release in Australia. That's a lot of podcast discussions to avoid (four, to be exact), online comments to not parse too closely (several), and theatrical trailers to plug your ears and scrunch your eyes shut as they played (about four as well).

Yet I did it because I had such high hopes for what this movie had the possibility of being.

For a while it looked like it was going to get there. And watch out, because now I'm going to spoil the hell out of this movie.

When it looked like it was going to get there, I thought it might be a horror movie version of Django Unchained. When I realized it wasn't going to get there, it had turned into a horror movie version of Self/Less.

One of those is a more common reference than the other, so I'll explain the other.

Self/Less is a 2015 sci-fi thriller directed by Tarsem Singh, in which the consciousness of a dying man (Ben Kingsley) is swapped into the body of a much younger, more attractive man (Ryan Reynolds). It's not all that good but it has its moments.

I don't love Django Unchained either, but boy do I wish this movie was more like Django than it was like Self/Less.

See, the movie I thought Get Out was going to be -- and, to return to the fallacy of wishing a movie were a different movie than it is, the movie I wished it had been -- was that horror Django Unchained, or maybe the horror version of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, which is probably the most obvious point of comparison. Attractive young white girl brings handsome young black boyfriend home to her supposedly accepting family, and all hell breaks loose.

It was the way in which the hell broke loose that I didn't like.

I expected this movie to be about racism, and it is -- sort of. But racism is actually kind of a red herring in this movie. Or, it's racism of a totally different sort, or reverse racism, or extremely hurtful behavior directed at a particular race of people that has more to do with wanting to be them than not wanting to be them.

And it's about swapping brains into bodies where they don't belong.

But how much more interesting would this movie have been if it were really about racism?

I love the idea of untested liberal values. So few of us liberals have to prove that we are actually the liberals we say we are. We believe in equal rights, and we tell everybody we'd love a gay or trans child just as much as we'd love one who's straight, and we tell people we "don't see skin color." But rarely are we required to provide the proof of this in our own lives.

So I love the idea of a movie where a girl brings her black boyfriend home to her liberal parents, who have their liberal values tested for the first time and fail that test spectacularly. And fail that test in a way that drops the movie they're in into the horror genre.

Jordan Peele could have made that movie. That he made a movie about body swapping instead is to this movie's detriment.

I don't want to say there are not cool parts of the plot he did choose to tell. The most chilling thing I can think of in Get Out is the performance of Betty Gabriel as Georgina, the maid/servant who shows the most obvious signs of being "off" -- of, basically, being a lobotomized zombie. She's terrifying. And if it had been this other movie, we'd likely lose her performance.

But I think the scariest thing about scary movies is the ways in which they are plausible on some level. I don't know about you, but movies involving the threat of fantastical creatures don't get under my skin the way that movies involving the real behavior of humans can. I want to see what a liberal father who suddenly realizes he can't stomach the idea of his daughter being with a black man might surprise himself by doing. I also think that movie is a more interesting conversation starter.

More interesting than, you know, a mad brain surgeon who sticks the minds of old white people into young black bodies, first having gotten his wife to hypnotize those young black bodies' original hosts.

And let's get to that. This movie puts you on the lookout for racist behavior against black people, and it certainly gives you it, or some version of it. But more than anything it's really giving you a look at the awkwardness of white people around black people, who try to find that perfect balance between trying too hard to ingratiate themselves to them and trying too little. Well-meaning white people try to engage black people on subjects that they believe to be of mutual interest, like Barack Obama, in the case of liberals (and in the case of Bradley Whitford's character in this movie). I find that pretty interesting, because although it's a sort of racism, it's really just a sort of racial hyper-awareness. The requirements of how to behave in a situation they consider fraught with the potential to offend causes them to become extra conscious of everything they say or do, which can turn them into babbling idiots stumbling over themselves. Whereas if they just shut off their brains, they'd probably interact with the person who is different from them in a natural fashion that might even contain genuine bonding.

That stuff is all interesting, and it becomes even more so when you throw in an element of how it might go wrong. How it might go horribly, horribly wrong, and how things might escalate into dark places over the course of a well-intentioned weekend.

What Peele does instead is he confuses his message through seemingly contradictory elements of that message.

Because they are inexplicably sinister, the white family in this movie treats their daughter's boyfriend (Daniel Kaluuya) with a kind of thinly veiled contempt. That would be all well and good if they were secret racists posing as a picturesque liberal family accepting of all shapes, sizes and colors.

But these people are not secret racists, or at least, I don't think they are. Their secret is not that they're racists, but that they want to be Kaluuya and the others they have kidnapped, hypnotized and lobotomized over the years. They find there to be something essentially superior about a black person that makes his/her body ripe for this mind swap procedure. And yes, some of that is based on a Jimmy the Greek-style "blacks have better hips for running" type of racism, but the end result is still that these people choose to transplant their brains into the bodies of people they want to serve as physical vessels for their consciousness for the remaining days of those bodies. You don't assume the form of something you loathe, do you?

And it's not all "blacks can run faster" stereotyping. Some of it is "blacks are cooler," or "blacks are better lovers," or whatever fantasy these old white people have conjured up about these idealized corporeal vessels. In any case, they are not just trying to be rejuvenated via some younger version of themselves. They are actively seeking an experience that they consider foreign to theirs, and implicitly, superior to theirs.

The confusion of the message comes in the sense that there is a disdain and loathing in the attitudes of the captors toward their prey. Maybe only because they are movie villains and Peele is playing things a bit on the broad side in his first feature, but Peele requires them to appear to hate this thing they are also trying to attain. There's no essential reason they have to behave in a sinister fashion toward Kaluuya's Chris and the others they also enslave. They do so because the beats of a horror movie require it. I'd argue it might almost be more scary if they were appearing to worship these people they were about to lobotomize.

And another confusion results from all this, namely, Chris' certainty from the very start of the movie that it is a bad idea to bring your black boyfriend home to your white parents without telling them he's black. Which, I suppose, is a bit of conventional wisdom I would tend to agree with. However, he's so focused on the likelihood that they will balk at him that it almost feels like it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He's looking right away for any sign that something's wrong, and he gets those signs because Peele has written those characters to give off signs. He's done this because they are villains in a movie and he doesn't trust them to be scary if they are not scary in obvious ways, ways that align them with mad scientists more than with real people whose actual complexities are scary enough on their own.

So what ends up happening is that Chris ends up being right, but for the wrong reasons. Sure, he's got pretty good evidence in the spooky handyman and spooky maid he encounters upon arriving, who, one might argue, are also written to too much of an extreme. (I mean, why would you want to transplant the brain of a loved one into another person's body if it meant they were going to entirely cease behaving normally?)

But I'd argue that his prediction that her family is secretly racist is not actually borne out. They don't hate Chris, they want to be him, though it's conveyed in a problematic way because Peele also kind of wants to have them be racist, even though that doesn't make sense. And the daughter, who turns out to be their field agent luring in their subjects, can't be very racist either if she's dated and slept with a string of black men. She too displays a loathing toward Chris (and presumably, her previous boyfriends) though she has presumably committed months if not years of her life to sleeping with them and spending significant amounts of time in their company. That's like someone saying they smoke two packs a day because they hate cigarettes.

So if I've got this litany of complaints about Get Out, why do I kind of also just want to leave it exactly as it is?

Because there are great things in this movie. Like the hypnotism scene. Like Kaluuya's performance in that scene, and in general. Like the mood of dread that permeates the movie. Like Gabriel's aforementioned performance, and like the performance of Lakeith Stanfield as another enslaved vessel. Like the opening scene, which could make a great short movie in itself. Like the last third of awesome genre satisfactions. Like the promise it shows in a director who has cut his teeth as a comedian, but is not laughing here.

I just wish the thoughts and ideas of this movie, which are bursting with social and cultural relevance, could be streamlined into something more coherent.

And that, you know, maybe the movie didn't have to be about brain swapping.

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