By Michael Phillips 2017-03-17

Chicago Tribune

3 1/2 stars

It's a point of pride with any horror film, or any thriller verging on horror: Used correctly, a perfectly innocent song suddenly sounds like the scariest bleep in the world.

The opening sequence of "Get Out," one of the most bracing surprises of the new moviegoing year, finds a young man walking along a dark suburban street, looking for an address somewhere on Edgewood Lane. He is alone. A car, driver obscured by the streetlight shadows, slowly rolls up alongside him. The gently macabre old ditty "Run Rabbit Run," the one about the farmer who wants his rabbit pie, plays inside the car.

The pedestrian knows something is up. "Not today," he mutters, turning around, picking up his walking pace.

But today is his day. Before he knows it, the young man, who is African-American in a presumptively all-white part of town, instigates the storyline in writer-director Jordan Peele's satirically shrewd, sensationally effective thriller. With no apologies, this prologue preys on black moviegoers' anxieties about being cornered in the wrong place at the wrong time, running afoul of the wrong adversary. And, yes, there is a universal element to the setup, beyond the racial specifics. The movie's sharp that way.

It's a little of everything: unnerving, funny in just the right way and at the right times, serious about its observations and perspectives on racial animus, straight-up populist when it comes to an increasingly (but not sadistically) violent climax. That's entertainment!

Fans of the late TV sketch comedy show "Key & Peele" know how deftly Peele (his partner on the show was Keegan-Michael Key) plays with fire. It's no surprise that "Get Out" offers some choice comic details in its main character's journey into the land beyond the pale. The surprise comes in how solidly director Peele handles the thriller part.

Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, has been dating Rose, a chipper, easygoing sort portrayed by Allison Williams, for several months. It's time, she determines, to meet her parents. "Do they know I'm black?" he asks her as they pack for the weekend. No, she says, but no worries: They're liberals, and Rose's neurosurgeon father (Bradley Whitford) would've voted for Obama a third time if he could have.

Catherine Keener, both steely and comforting, plays mom, a therapist with a specialty in hypnosis. Rose has a skeevy brother (Caleb Landry Jones, overdoing it) who takes a strong interest in Chris' judo skills. The initial dinner goes like it goes; it's tense but Chris figures, well, Rose turned out OK, so ....

On the other hand: What's up with the vaguely robotic groundskeeper played by Marcus Henderson? And the servant played, memorably, by Betty Gabriel as a perpetual, subservient smile in motion? We learn these two used to work for Rose's grandparents, now deceased. We learn a few other details: The basement is closed off due to black mold, for example. Also Rose's parents' annual house party coincides with their visit, and there the small talk focuses on Chris' "genetic makeup," his physical fitness and his designs on Rose.

You may know where this is heading. Here and there in "Get Out" director Peele struggles to find the right mixture of tones. Too much comedy, and the story falls apart as a thriller worth our investment; too little, and Peele's personality threatens to disappear inside the results. But the movie works; its shift into splatter mode for the climax feels both earned and, on an exploitation level, satisfying. Slivers of Ira Levin's "The Stepford Wives," and a hint of L.Q. Jones' bizarre cult item "A Boy and His Dog," can be found in the woodwork here. Chris' friend, a TSA agent deadpanned just so by comedian Lil Rel Howery, rolls in and out of the picture just long enough to slay the crowd.

And this one really should be seen with a crowd.

MPAA rating: R (for violence, bloody images and language including sexual references).

Running time: 1:44

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