Warning: Mild “Get Out” spoilers below.
I’m not the type to shout at a screen. I know that neither the actors nor the storyline unfolding before me will be changed by my jeers or whoops; whatever is to happen will not be swayed by any volume of support.
But while watching “Get Out,” the social thriller directed by Jordan Peele that just passed the coveted $100 million box-office mark, in a crowded Brooklyn theater, I couldn’t resist joining my fellow moviegoers in raising my fists and cheering at the smashing of a certain pivotal teacup.
Aside from the excitement of watching a film whose hype is every bit deserved, I was also struck by how glad I was to have experienced Peele’s utterly creepy, unique story as one face in a big crowd, rather than how many of us so often take our movies these days — requested on demand while on our couch, a literal comfort zone.
The fight to save the moviegoing experience cropped up as soon as streaming services made the average subscriber’s film collection — once reliant on physical copies — into that of the most exhaustive cinema buff, where all kinds of genres were available at the touch of a button. (One could argue that VHS tapes, DVDs, and Blu-Ray discs first started the trend toward better home-theater setup and consumers’ I-want-it-now tendencies, but they hardly made the theater experience feel as obsolete as streaming and VOD services.) The arguments for the nostalgic pull of the cinema or the immersive experience it offers can can feel “meh” for the average patron who’s worried about rising ticket prices or distracted by better fare on TV.
Film critic Pauline Kael made a poignant case for the movie theater in her 1969 essay “Trash, Art and the Movies,” recalling her childhood afternoons spent in “the anonymity and impersonality of sitting in a cinema, just enjoying ourselves, not having to be responsible, not having to be ‘good’.”
“The appeal of movies was in the details of crime and high living and wicked cities and in the language of toughs and urchins; it was in the dirty smile of the city girl who lured the hero away from Janet Gaynor. What draws us to movies in the first place, the opening into other, forbidden or surprising kinds of experience,” she writes later in the essay — how better to experience that then in a giant room designed for that very purpose? And today, in a world where we rarely have cause to relinquish the distractions our phones offer, devoting our full attention to a larger-than-life screen feels like reverent nostalgia.
The reverence lingers, I learned, even as your fellow moviegoers begin to shout, jump or gasp, and you are reminded that you are in this world once again. While watching “Get Out,” I was well aware I wasn’t the only one grabbing at my armrest after a jump-scare, nor was I the sole viewer wishing our hero would get the heck out of dodge — I could hear my row-mates chiming in with similar sentiments or nervously laughing off scary moments. Watching felt like a unified experience, one that grew to a crescendo in the final half-hour of the film. People might have jumped out of their seats to stand at certain points.
What’s even more notable about the viewing experience for this film is that Peele and crew achieved this feat without the special effects or 3D visuals so many top box-office earners employ, a testament to the power of an original, smart story in a market saturated with franchises and reboots.
Warning: OK, now there are major “Get Out” spoilers below.
The best example of this happens at the very end of the film, when Chris, the black boyfriend visiting his white girlfriend’s parents, is on the verge of killing said (truly deranged) girlfriend after fighting for his life to escape from a family who intended to transplant parts of an old white guy’s brain into his own. At this point, viewers are joyous after watching him thwart each of her family members in turn. We think Chris’ nightmare is nearly over.
But here, Peele pulls off an incredibly skillful bit of filmmaking: We see telltale flashing blue-and-red lights in the distance. I could hear the slow realization dawn over the crowd: while most horror movies are capped off with the comforting arrival of law enforcement, the world of “Get Out” is firmly in the same one where black civilians receive much different — occasionally fatal — treatment from police than white ones in similar situations. Suddenly, it doesn’t look good for Chris, a black man kneeling above a white woman, covered in blood and surrounded by her dead family members. A near silence fell over the room, with the occasional, resigned “Aww, man” coming from a viewer.
Immediately, Chris’ girlfriend Rose transforms from a murderous psychopath into a victim, feebly calling to the car for help. A dark ending for Chris seems unavoidable.
And then, the door swings open, bearing the word AIRPORT instead of POLICE. It’s Chris’ best friend Rod from the “T. S. Motherf**kin’ A.” And from the theater: deafening cheers.
Peele leads his crowd to one conclusion, given viewers’ external knowledge of racial tensions with police, and then, just as skillfully, completely subverts it. It’s a true roller-coaster of an ending, and one that became an unforgettable theater experience.
Of course, the cheer-able conclusion of Peele’s film isn’t the only kind of story worth telling on the big screen, to which people who regularly file in for everything from “Kong: Skull Island” to “Moonlight” can attest. But this kind of thrilling, unexpected moment that I felt as part of a group is a sign that people are still doing incredibly exciting things with film — you just need a good seat to see it.