Jordan Peele’s psychological horror Get Out has consistently drawn large box office numbers since its February 2017 release. As with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby or any Stanley Kubrick feature, it’s the carefully layered subtext that bears repeat viewings. As black photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, Black Mirror) and his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams, Girls) venture to upstate New York to meet her parents, race is revealed to be more of an issue than Rose originally let on. Get Out explores many notions: the duplicitous nature of liberal racism, the cumulative damage of microaggressions and appropriation, assimilation versus acculturation. But it’s the deer imagery, and the insinuations about race and resistance, that continue to elude audiences.
Chris’ journey begins with a bad omen in Get Out. During his drive with Rose to the Armitage residence, the relative normalcy of their trip is shattered when they collide with a deer. Its body catapults into the woods just off the road, and the couple pulls over to recover. Chris feels compelled to exit the car and steps into the woods to see if the deer is still alive, standing over the dying animal as it gasps its last breath. Close ups are intercut with shots of Chris’ transfixed face, hinting at something simmering under his calm exterior. Later, during his first trip to the “Sunken Place,” Chris reveals his greatest childhood shame to Rose’s hypnotherapist mother, Missy (Catherine Keener): he didn’t act quickly enough to save his own mother in the hours after her hit-and-run accident, and was thus responsible for her death. At this point, it’s clear that Chris goes back to see the dying deer because it served as a reminder of his mother’s death. From Get Out’s beginning, writer/director Peele clues the audience in as to the deer’s significance as a symbol.
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The biggest indicator that the deer means something more is most apparent when Chris first meets Rose’s father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), in person. His reaction to the deer story is notably odd. He praises Rose for hitting the deer and goes on to rant about the entire species and how they ruin the local neighborhoods. To eradicate them is a service to the community, according to Dean. This Get Out scene not only sets an odd tone for the rest of Chris’ interactions with the family, but it also primes the audience for what’s to come. We’ve all heard or read this rant before in the comments section of an article about POC. Instead of deer, however, the comments are often aimed at non-white people and how they ruin neighborhoods, how unassimilated they are and how they need to be locked up (or worse) for everyone’s safety. Later in Get Out, the reveal that the Armitage family appropriates Black bodies for the convenience and use of wealthy white society is justified as being for the greater good or, in other words, as a service to the community. Dean’s out-of-place tangent, then, is not just referring to the deer, but what — or whom — it represents to him.
At first, it seems peculiar that Dean speaks so lowly of deer, considering he has the imposing head of one mounted on the wall of the rec room where Chris is later held against his will. It’s not just a deer head mounted to the wall, either; the antlers indicate that the deer is likely male, also known as a buck. That in itself isn’t enough to make one pause, since it it’s clear early on that Dean is a hunter of sorts, and procured many exotic souvenirs during his travels abroad. During the grand tour of the house, he casually shows off his trophies from far-off African locales. Statues, instruments, tapestries; elements he had cherry-picked from Black culture to display in his own home — a simple-but-effective display of Black appropriation. Like the Black people Rose hunted and seduced, Dean’s favorite bits of blackness were given new life as decorative trophies. The biggest trophy of all, though, is displayed in the recreation room.
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A buck’s taxidermied head mounted in a rec room is nothing special on its own, but in Get Out, the connected historical context makes it a far more sinister image. A buck is also a known post-Reconstruction racial slur, used to describe Black men who refused to acquiesce to white authority figures and were considered a menace to white America. The “black buck” became a stereotype in America throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries that reduced African-American men to the villainous role of savage brutes, who would cause devastation to white property (including the rape of white women), and thus necessitated brutal measures in order to maintain order, for the good of the community. In Get Out, it is in this context that the buck’s mounted head is transformed into a symbol of white dominance over the Black male. That the trophy is displayed above the television (used to mentally “tame” Chris into submission via hypnosis) is no mistake.
Further, it’s no mistake that Chris escapes the recreation room the way he does in Get Out. He resists the family’s hypnosis cues by picking and stuffing cotton (from the armrests on his chair) into his ears, the racial irony of which is particularly satisfying, and was confirmed as intentional by Peele in a New York Times podcast. As Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) comes to collect Chris, he bludgeons the young man with a bocce ball; another sweet spoonful of irony in which he fulfills the brute athletic “purpose” that Jeremy insisted upon earlier. Chris then impales a shocked Dean with the antlers of the very buck that loomed over him moments before. The antlers are both a literal and a metaphorical implement of resistance, and their indication is clear: Chris is not a wild beast to be tamed, and he will not be another ethnic trophy for the Armitage estate. With the prior knowledge of Dean’s awkward raving about the deer population needing to be kept under control, it becomes especially poetic that a physical token of the dehumanization of Black people becomes a tool for tearing him down and, by extension, the nuanced oppression that he represents.
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Like the color red in The Sixth Sense, the imagery in Get Out is both visually striking and packed with power. Peele saturates that imagery with subtextual power, using the deer as a symbol for Chris’ past trauma, the animalization and appropriation of people of color, forced deference to the white man and, finally, as an instrument of defiance. With so much gold mined from one visual element, it’s safe to assume that Get Out will continue to entertain and provoke with multiple viewings, making it a valuable addition to any film lover’s collection.
Anya Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a horror-centric columnist and film critic. Her work can be seen in Fangoria Magazine, Rue Morgue, Dread Central and Birth.Movies.Death as well as her website anyawrites.com.
Categories: 2010s, 2017 Film Essays, 2017 Horror Essays, Film Essays, Horror, Mystery, Thriller