As we approach the Academy Awards on March 4, conventional wisdom and conversation will most likely focus on Oscar front-runners like The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. So in our recurring column Make the Case, The Ringer will focus on the less heralded—but possibly more deserving—Oscar nominees.
“I would honestly be thrilled to lose to Jordan Peele over & over for my entire career,” Kumail Nanjiani tweeted after his script for The Big Sick lost the Writers Guild of America prize for Best Original Screenplay to Get Out. Peele’s victory at the WGAs has positioned him as the front-runner to win the Academy Award in the same category, a result which would fulfill fellow nominee Nanjiani’s prophecy and, more importantly, stand as one of the most richly deserved victories in recent Oscar history.
Peele’s debut feature does not lack acclaim or exegesis. Since debuting at Sundance in 2017, it’s been providing think-piece fodder from a variety of different angles, from explanations of its demographic-busting box office success to admiring profiles of its creator, whose switch from sketch comedy to what he termed “social thrillers” demonstrated a truly elastic talent for satire. The best Key and Peele sketches split the difference between absurdity and sociology, which is why the controversy over Get Out’s inclusion in the Golden Globes’ Best Comedy category was so ridiculous (even more ridiculous than usual when it comes to the Golden Globes). Of course the film is a comedy, which is not to say that it isn’t serious; its power resides in the unresolved tension between humor and horror that permeates Peele’s entire design.
It’s a balance that distinguishes Get Out from two of its main competitors for Best Original Screenplay, neither of which maintains a similar equilibrium. Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s script for The Shape of Water tries for a blend of B-movie spookiness and capital-R romance, but there are faults in both its narrative engineering (why is there only one surveillance camera in a top-secret government laboratory?) and its political follow-through (the staging of the final scene confirms that for all its attempts at social commentary, this is pure escapist entertainment).
Meanwhile, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri applies a flamboyantly theatrical dramatic and verbal syntax to essentially realistic, present-tense social and racial tensions; the backlash against the film since it won TIFF’s People’s Choice Award suggests a flawed gambit (and McDonagh’s own semi-articulate self-defense doesn’t really help his case).
As for the other two nominees, there’s not much to say against Greta Gerwig’s fleet, assured screenplay for Lady Bird (a model of efficiency next to The Big Sick’s unfortunate Apatowian bloat, which turned a potentially likable, winning comedy into an endurance test). But as witty and well-tuned as Lady Bird is, it seems small—not simply modest, but minor—stacked up against Peele’s big-time ambition and execution. Get Out is not a perfect movie by any means, and I’d even argue that its greatest flaw—its ending, which I’ll get to in a bit—is tied to the script more than direction.
At the same time, I’d say that no screenwriter in 2017 did more while working from scratch than Peele did. The operative word here is “original.” There are extratextual references in Get Out, ranging from the super-obvious (the premise is indebted to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) to the wonderfully subtle (the incongruous presence of a Japanese photographer at a garden party honors a background detail in the book and film versions of Rosemary’s Baby).
Peele’s populist cinephilia isn’t overbearing. He didn’t build Get Out out of the spare parts of other movies, nor does the viewer need (as they do with Quentin Tarantino, or the Coen brothers, or even sometimes del Toro) to have ingested an entire syllabus’s worth of influences to appreciate the in-jokes. Get Out’s script privileges character and situation over allusion; its greatest moments of recognition are rooted in lived, rather than viewed, experience. (And even when it does downshift into pop culture parody, it does so with a healthy sense of weirdness: Turning Dirty Dancing’s Oscar-winning Jennifer Warnes–Bill Medley duet “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” into a closet white-supremacist anthem is the wickedest top-40 repurposing since Reservoir Dogs.)
“I’m like a sore thumb out here,” says Andre (Lakeith Stanfield) as he walks through “confusing, creepy-ass suburbs” in Get Out’s chilling cold open. Right from the first page of his screenplay, Peele embeds the paranoia of being a black man in a white milieu, a scenario carried over from the ingenious, post–Trayvon Martin Key and Peele sketch “Hoodie.” It’s a feeling that keeps recurring throughout the film’s near-flawless first half, as Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris comes to realize that his girlfriend’s family’s country house is not exactly a safe space. The anxiety is multidirectional, encompassing not only race but class; the “grand tour” offered by Bradley Whitford’s Dean Armitage comes off as faux-benevolent flexing even before the character’s ulterior motives are revealed.
On this point, it actually takes multiple viewings to appreciate the cleverness of some of the script’s foreshadowing, like an allusion to “black mold” in Armitage’s basement, or Dean’s priceless observation that his mother loved her kitchen so much the family “kept a piece of her” behind there—an aside that lands on a close-up of Georgina (Betty Gabriel), later revealed to be a vessel for the late matriarch’s consciousness. Georgina’s presence is the most vivid of the many red flags Chris notices on his first night at the Armitages’, and her character, though ultimately minor, is an example of the level Peele is working at. Georgina’s servile posture is deeply uncomfortable, but her sing-songy assurance that nothing is wrong in the household is a masterstroke: Her repeated invocation of “no” is like a mantra of pure, terrifying denial.
Gabriel may be Get Out’s MVP. In The New York Times, Wesley Morris wrote that “behind her wet, glassy eyes, you can almost hear someone banging frantically on a door … and [she] simultaneously has to be the banger and the door.” Her quietly entranced acting anticipates the film’s big twist—that Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) has been hypnotizing her daughter’s African American boyfriends at regular intervals to soften them up for the “Coagula,” an obscure process of brain transplantation straight out of a 1950s mad-scientist flick. The quasi-sci-fi side of Get Out is purposefully underdeveloped, since a more detailed explanation of how the whole thing works would potentially make things sillier than they already are. But Peele’s exploitation of hypnosis as a plot device—and a visual motif—is wonderfully sophisticated.
When Chris is being put under, the script directions describe him as transfixed, as if in front of a screen. Get Out joins a long list of movies that have drawn evocatively on the relationship between film spectatorship and hypnosis, from John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate to Lars von Trier’s Europa. (Comparisons of Get Out’s ultimately fraudulent interracial romance to the miscegenation-themed horror of Candyman yield another odd correspondence; Virginia Madsen has always claimed that that film’s director, Bernard Rose, put her in a trance for all of her scenes opposite Tony Todd’s title character.)
By now, the paralytic condition that Missy refers to as “the Sunken Place” has earned a spot in the popular lexicon, explained and elaborated upon by critics and essayists—and also by Peele himself, who tweeted out its meaning last March. It’s a brilliant and suggestive bit of phrasing, but consider the underlying conceptual wit of having a conspicuously “woke” character like Chris being put to sleep—or the sensational, audacious detail of him finally using a wad of cotton to drown out his hypnotist’s trigger phrase and escape the Sunken Place once and for all.
This brings us to the ending, Get Out’s weakest point. As exciting and enjoyable as it is to watch Chris wreak bloody vengeance on his captors (especially Caleb Landry Jones, who has become the new Paul Dano in terms of getting the shit kicked out of him in Best Picture–nominated films), the crowd-pleasing vibe comes off as a bit of a concession to convention.
It’s now widely known that Peele had a different climax in mind, in which Chris is arrested for murdering the Armitages and sentenced to life in jail—a sobering variation on the idea of “the Sunken Place” and the plight of living as an entrapped spectator to one’s own life. That ending would have pushed Get Out’s political critique into an attack on the carceral state. Peele’s decision to have Chris rescued by Lil Rel Howery’s TSA officer runs the risk of making it seem like all’s well that ends well, constraining, rather than extending, the implications of deep-seated racial envy and exploitation developed earlier in the film. Still, if the worst thing that can be said about a screenplay is that the finale is too powerfully satisfying for its own good, it would seem that script is a winner—as it should be on March 4.