Those arms and smiles all but engulf Chris (the British actor Daniel Kaluuya, going deep in a breakthrough performance), a photographer with a sweet pad, adorable dog and equally frisky, adoring girlfriend, Rose (a perfectly cast Allison Williams, from the HBO show “Girls”). The story opens with them preparing for a long weekend with her parents. “Do they know I’m black?” Chris gently asks. They don’t, but Rose assures him not to worry, and off they go into the countryside and narrative complications. Mr. Peele, making his feature debut, sets a cozy, innocuous scene complete with coos and loving glances, a tranquillity that shatters with an eerily inopportune deer crossing.
By the time Chris and Rose pull up to her parents’ house — a stately brick building with imposing white columns and rocking chairs on the front porch — ripples of unease have disturbed the calm. The nicer Rose’s parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), behave, the greater the ripples. They don’t blink at him or his race (Ms. Keener is a virtuoso of the deadeye stare), but instead adopt the forced geniality of people who seem anxious to hide their discomfort. Missy’s the watchful one, while the voluble Dean cozies up to Chris, dropping embarrassing slang and relating an odd story about Jesse Owens, the black Olympian who shocked Hitler.
Mr. Peele is best known for his work with Keegan-Michael Key on their titular comedy sketch show, where politics mixed freely with the laughs. Together they starred in the 2016 comedy “Keanu,” a lampoon of action cinema that was a (slack) piece with the movie love that was a mainstay of their show. In one memorable bit from the show, heckling cinephiles voice their complaints (“this movie has an inconsistent visual language!”); in another, two friends realize that the reason the zombie hordes aren’t attacking them is they’re flesh-eating racists. “Get Out” expands on, and considerably deepens, a similar idea by turning white racism into disquieting genre shivers.
But Mr. Peele is after more than giggles and shocks; he’s taking on 21st-century white racism and its rationales. The opener — a black man talking on a cellphone on an empty suburban street — briskly sets the tone, unsettles the mood and announces Mr. Peele’s way with metaphor. He’s working within a recognizable horror-film framework here (the darkness, the stillness), so it’s not surprising when a car abruptly pulls up and begins tailing the man. You may even snicker because you think you’ve seen this flick before. Except that when this man anxiously looks for a way out, the scene grows discordantly disturbing because you may, as I did, flash on Trayvon Martin.
It’s a jarring moment that might have been catastrophic for the movie if Mr. Peele didn’t quickly yank you back into its fiction. (He’s got great timing, no surprise.) There’s relief when the offscreen world recedes just then. Yet part of what makes “Get Out” both exciting and genuinely unsettling is how real life keeps asserting itself, scene after scene. Our monsters, Mr. Peele reminds us, are at times as familiar as the neighborhood watch; one person’s fiction, after all, is another’s true-life horror story. ” For his part, Chris, separated existentially, chromatically and every other way, spends so much time putting the white world at ease that he can’t recognize the threat coming for him.
Mr. Peele knows that threat, plays with it and eviscerates it with jokes and scares, only to top it off messily with full-on Grand Guignol splatter. But some of his finest, most genuinely shocking work is his quietest. One of the best scenes I’ve seen in a long while finds Chris talking with one of the parents’ black servants, a maid, Georgina (a fantastic Betty Gabriel). Chris confesses that he gets nervous when around a lot of white people, an admission that Georgina answers by advancing toward him with a volley of “no, no, no,” cascades of tears and a smile so wide it looks as if it could split her face in two. Something has gotten under her skin and it’s frightening.