The Comedy in Get Out

Last year Get Out was nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Many consider Get Out one of the best horror films of 2017. I was intrigued for months, but I rarely watch movies nowadays, but I decided to see Get Out for myself and see whether it’s a comedy or a horror. Well, I found out it’s neither, but can be interpreted as both, and it’s really fascinating to see why.
Get Out is… interesting. It certainly plays with horror tropes, probably taking inspiration from works such as The Wicker Man and The Stepford Wives (and their derivatives), but it’s also very clear from the first minute that this story is a statement about representation of black people, highlighting causal (and perhaps unintentional) racist behavior.

There is comedy in this film, but not in a sense that it’s a funny movie. In fact, Get Out isn’t funny at all, but you’ll find yourself laughing a lot. This is because when something unnerving happens, it is delivered with comedic timing. Consider the “false alarm theory” by neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran, take this quote from the abstract:

Laughter (and humor) involves the gradual build-up of expectation (a model) followed by a sudden twist or anomaly that entails a change in the model–but only as long as the new model is non-threatening–so that there is a deflation of expectation. The loud explosive sound is produced, we suggest, to inform conspecifics that there has been a ‘false alarm’, to which they need not orient. 

Get Out, in a way, proves this theory: its protagonist arrives in a milieu where most of the interactions with white people can be both interpreted as innocently ignorant and something really vile and dangerous. The movie plays with this a lot before revealing what’s really going on, and the rhythm of alarming happenings and temporary reliefs create uncomfortable but comedic beats. Basically we laugh, because we’re startled, terrified, and then immediately relieved that everything’s okay. But, of course, everything’s not okay.

Reactions by the characters are also exaggerated, which is a trait of comedy. What Daniel Kaluuya does with his face, is nothing short of extraordinary, his reactions are genuine, but at the same time, almost too innocent in the face of danger. And Betty Gabriel? Such a great, physical performance. Every time I saw her, I was so weirded out, I couldn’t really decide if I should laugh or quietly squirm in my seat. LilRel Howery plays an almost comic relief sidekick, but his character’s concern is genuine, his attempts to help the situation are honest, and this kind of honesty also has a sort of comedic quality, considering the situation.

Comedy and horror are definitely close relatives, but it takes a smart script and a great director to juxtapose them in a way that they don’t become “horror comedy”, nor shlock, nor parody.

Yes, Get Out works in the category it was nominated in, as it can be both a satire and a comedy – in a sense. And it is a horror film – in a sense. But it’s neither, really. Director Jordan Peele says this:

It sort of subverts the idea of genre, but it is the kind of movie that black people can laugh at, but white people, not so much.

He jokingly (?) tweets that “Get Out is a documentary“, and he says the film defies genre categorization. All this is true, and it’s true that it works better as social commentary than a traditional genre film, but its cinematic and narrative language is very-very good at presenting uncomfortable situations where a racist remark might be something intended or not, but the line becomes so blurry that the scene unfolds… oddly funny. Or horrific.Can’t white people laugh during this film? I wouldn’t think so. I think it’s a matter of empathy. You can laugh, and science itself says that it’s a natural reaction to the horrors you see. The way the story beats are delivered… sure, they utilize sudden, comedic timing. But good comedy always speaks the uncomfortable truth as well. If you laugh, that might actually be a good sign, as you probably get it. I confess it is always one (or ten) percent harder for me to grasp the stakes because I don’t live in America, but Get Out is so spot-on with human reactions, the absurdity of social interactions between people who are coming from different backgrounds… it just makes me understand it, and that’s the point. Laugh through it, or be terrified, no matter: just… understand it.

Get Out is a great film, it doesn’t require categorization. It’s just great on its own.


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