Before he ventured into the world of film direction, Jordan Peele was a veteran television comedian. The arduous journey from sketch comedy shows Mad TV (2002-08) and Key And Peele (2012-15) to an iconic horror movie director with just three films speaks volumes about the filmmaker’s conviction. His films are not only financially successful but also critically appreciated. Along with an ample dose of suspense, scare, entertainment and thrill, his films stand out because of the message they impart on the racial biases of society, the excellent exploration of complex philosophical themes and the evocation of human pathos. His refined cinematic sensitivity is appreciated by critics and general viewers alike.
Over the years, Peele has created an impressive filmography and has worked in the capacity of an actor, writer, while producing projects directed by others. His most notable work as a producer is for Spike Lee’s Academy Award-winning film BlacKkKlansman (2018). Peele became the first African-American filmmaker to win an academy award for best original screenplay for his debut Get Out (2017). Today, he is one of the most imaginative masters of contemporary cinema and here’s what I think helped him redefine the rules of the horror genre.
In Get Out, a Black man visits and meets his white girlfriend’s family and finds himself trapped after learning about their sinister ways. Whereas in Us (2019), a Black family of four goes on vacation and is attacked by evil doppelgängers. Narrated in five episodes, the chain of events unfolds in Nope (2022) when a UFO makes a sudden appearance and the characters of the film take advantage of the situation to achieve their personal goals. Through all three films, Peele has displayed his talent for crafting enchanting horror stories. But how do Peele’s films stand out from the rest of the filmmakers who had dealt with the same genre?
His films are allegorical in nature that utilize the horror genre to explore societal themes with a complex subtlety. He prefers to have an open-ended structure to his films. It’s a deliberate attempt to create a sense of unease in the minds of the viewer. At the same time, he smartly infuses unflinching messages through his film with a candid stroke. There’s no make-up or prosthetics to create ghostly creatures or to induce scares for the victimized characters. Neither is there a priest or occultist to tame the ghost and bring relief to the lives of the victims.
His stories explore the plight of individuals trapped in unpredicted circumstances, where the element of horror serves as a sub-genre. The fear and horror are created by individuals who are active members of society and symbolically represent their discriminating and selfish motives. By doing so, Peele has not only redefined but also fortified the genre of horror filmmaking.
Style and Symbols
Get Out is a symbolic horror designed to underline the evils of racism. In the opening, as Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is going to visit the family of his white girlfriend, a deer accidentally runs into the car and dies. The incident augurs the danger Chris is about to encounter later in the film. Besides, the black people working at the Armitage Estate are a representative of white supremacy and the long history of black slavery. Chris bring hypnotized by Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener), further signifies how white people want to take control over blacks and continue racial discrimination.
Us is a parable about inequality and represents a time when individuals are living with a fear of some unknown invaders who are a threat to society. These invaders are outsiders who have created a kind of psychosis as citizens of a nation live in constant fear of getting murdered or losing their occupations and all such comfortable positions in society. The fingers are always pointed at the other. But in the process, we fail to decipher that the evil we are scared of resides within our souls and minds. What if we are our biggest foe? Hence the title of the film acquires a dual meaning. Us can be a country or a group of individuals.
In sharp contrast, Nope uses the trope of an alien invasion as a narrative device. But the film is packaged with the metaphor of unethical practices of surveillance culture, the greedy culture of capitalism, brutal law enforcement by police brutality as well stark documentation of the history of black people in America. The appearance of a UFO is akin to an extravagant opportunity. By taking advantage of the situation, the various characters of the film unveil their true nature. It symbolically represents the unexplained nature of human choices and how they can create a catastrophic society.
In Peele’s film cinematography and editing in tandem create a renewed visual interpretation of horror and awe. Peele has worked with three different cinematographers, Toby Oliver, Mike Gioulakis and Hoyte van Hoytema for Get Out, Us and Nope respectively. Since the major portion of Get Out and Us take place in the interiors, Peele frames his characters in such a way that they appear to be held captive within the claustrophobic corner of their spaces. Whereas, in Nope he uses lots of wide shots to show the expanse of the location as a symbolic gesture of the world of the film that is filled with choices.
Similarly, Nicholas Monsour has edited all three films directed by Peele, maintaining exceptional precision in the trimming and timing of shots to elicit scare and thrill with ease. The pattern of editing in Peele’s films is telling more of the story by careful visual juxtaposition.
In Get Out, the scene where Missy Armitage hypnotizes Chris, instead of a fast-paced edit Nicholas prefers to have a placidity in the scene by opting for a lesser number of cut points.
In Us, when the principal characters of the film encounter the “Tethered” character for the first time, the scare and fear in the scene is created by remaining in the facial expressions of the real characters for a longer time.
Whereas, in the beginning of Nope by inter-cutting the reaction of the child actor Ricky “Jupe” Park (Jacob Kim) hiding under the table and witnessing the champagne killing the human co-stars, Nicholas raises the bar of emotion and suspense. By doing so, he prepares us viscerally for the rest of the film.
Peele’s body of work has drawn comparisons to two legendary filmmakers. Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick.
Hitchcock strictly adhered to the principle that when information and suspense are placed alongside it creates a certain sort of inquisitiveness that will hook the audience till the end of the film. If an act was going to affect the life of a character in future, it’s better to give a hint in the beginning of the film. Get Out begins with the abduction of an African-American man by a white American. The incident portends that the protagonist Chris is going to encounter a similar fate later in the film.
When a young Adelaide enters a funhouse, she encounters a doppelgänger of herself in the house of mirrors, at the beginning of Us. This particular scene acts as a premonition of the danger she and her family will encounter in the future as an adult. Similarly, in Nope the brutal slaughter carried out by Gordy the chimp, in the beginning, is an indication of the behavior of the UFO, introduced later in the film, which devours to survive and kills to declare its dominance.
On the other hand, Kubrick religiously practiced the art of subtlety and utilization of symbolism within the narrative structure of his films. He wanted his films to be like critical documents and not merely a source of entertainment. Similarly, Get Out, Us and Nope are philosophical films based on subversive imagination. Inundated with satirical impulses, Peele’s films have always fused the competitive rigor of contemporary society with the visceral shock of transgression. These films allow the viewer to grapple with the experience of a deep revulsion that is prominent within our society.
Studying the fundamentals of the masters of cinema, Jordan Peele has carved a niche for himself and consolidated his status as one of the leading horror auteurs of cinema.
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.