Director: Jordan Peele
Writer: Jordan Peele
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford
Making his directorial debut, Jordan Peele, has managed to produce a thought provoking, satirical and fast paced horror that delves headlong into the always uncomfortable subject of racism. In this case, it’s the relationship between a young black man, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriends middle-class, liberal family.
Things get the ol’ switcharoo treatment right off the bat here as we witness a young black man, nervously walking through an upmarket suburban neighbourhood in the dead of night, before he gets jumped by the owner of a white muscle car as the eerie ‘Run Rabbit, Run’ blares out. This has the interesting effect of causing the viewer, in this case me, a white male, to immediately cast suspicious eyes on the motives of the predominantly white friends and family of his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), despite her early attempts to dissuade us when Chris asks “Do they know I’m black?”.
She of course slips in that her father voted for Obama twice and would’ve done for a third time had it been possible, something that Dean (Bradley Whitford), her father, is only too keen to mention during his introductory tour of their house with Chris. His fear of awkwardness appears to be vindicated because despite their warm, congenial welcome, the Armitage’s seem to try just a little too hard to show they don’t care about his race, Dean in particular excels at this faux congeniality, slipping in an unnecessary story about some tenuous links to Jesse Owens through his grandfather, which does nothing to relax the perplexed Chris.
And it’s really the interesting dynamic of this relationship between Chris and the Armitage’s, not to mention their two black servants, Georgina and Walter, their bizarre behaviour and also the patronising, prodding of the family’s friends, who appear in their droves for an annual get together, that creates the early tension and discomfort, setting the tone of the film nicely.
From the mother; Missy (Catherine Keener), who attempts to cure Chris of his smoking addiction in one hypnosis session that turns sinister; the strange interactions between the almost robotic like Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson), who act as if they’ve been lobotomised and Dean curiously mentions are like family; to the passive aggressive behaviour of Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), Rose’s brother, and the abrupt mental breakdown of Andrew (Lakeith Stanfield) following an innocent flash from Chris’ camera, the man from the opening scene who’s now popped up, dressed in ridiculous clothes and acting every bit as strange as the other black people.
The early, cringeworthy, passive racist, but otherwise innocent, interactions between the family guests and Chris gradually take a more sinister turn, however, when the guests quiet themselves into eerie whispers, listening in as Chris heads upstairs and a game of mass bingo appears to turn into a strange cult exercise, headed up by Dean.
Around this point, Peele has the film take a rather implausible turn to a full on horror, pseudo-scientific tale to explain the strange behaviour of the servants, guests and just what the hell is actually happening at the Armitage residence, which admittedly, disappointed me just a little bit. Only a little though. I enjoyed this film the most when Walter was sprinting unnervingly at Chris, out of the darkness, as he had a sly smoke in the middle of the night, when Georgina was looking blankly at herself in the windows and creepily, sneaking around or when the film was only hinting at the menacing motives of the undoubtedly bizarre, but otherwise decorous people around Chris. I also enjoyed the intermittent bouts of comedic relief from Rod (LilRel Howery), Chris’ friend and TSA agent, which started of a little jarring, but grew on me as he became more prominent in the story. The sci-fi twist in the story didn’t spoil the experience for me any, however, and it was generally speaking, well pieced together and worked in the context of the film. There had to be some form of explanation and conclusion to the story, I suppose, and the quick pacing of the film, and also the relatively strong ensemble performance from the cast, meant that I literally didn’t have time to linger on the ‘eureka’ moment of the film.
Speaking of performances, there was a couple of excellent ones in this film, in amongst a pretty decent supporting cast overall. Daniel Kaluuya (Sicario), an up and coming British actor, was the main protagonist, impressive in his role as the young photographer Chris, and for me, was the stand out performer. Whilst Bradley Whitford and Allison Williams delivered equally good showings in their roles as the conniving, villainous, father/daughter combo. Williams in particular had quite the transformation from the beginning, from an innocent lovebird to a cold, calculated, master manipulator. Other noteworthy performances, I would say, are Betty Gabriel as Georgina and Catherine Keener as Missy. Gabriel had some spine tingling, eerie moments, with one particular conversation between her and Chris, where he admits to feeling uncomfortable in the presence of too many white people, being rather impressive. She managed to go through pretty much the emotional spectrum in around 15-20 seconds whilst still maintaining the robotic persona that her character had throughout.
Thematically, it’s pretty clear what the film is trying to achieve. Peele, rather bravely some would say, is highlighting the elephant in the room that is the ingrained, now fairly passive racism, still prevalent throughout Western society in general, but in particular the US. From the unease of the black man at the beginning, walking through the largely white neighbourhood and Chris’ dealings with the police officer at the beginning, to his interactions with the liberal, predominantly white people. It all acts as a sort of microcosmic look into post-Obama America and it’s clear problems with racial issues.
On the film in general, it’s not the best horror I’ve seen in the last few months. That honour still goes to Green Room, but it manages to deliver a good blend of comedy, horror, and towards the end, good ol’ gore to deliver a fairly satisfying experience.