It took a lot of effort—a lot—to get The Boy to this critically acclaimed horror film written and directed by Jordan Peele (of the very funny “Key and Peele” TV series) because it triggered so many of his alarm bells. There were constant warning signs like “it really makes you think” and somewhat dubious assertions that “it wasn’t racial” (or words to that effect), and to top it off there’s a scene in the trailer (actually not in the film itself, explaining the puzzled looks The Boy got when asking people who had seen it) with a guy in a crusader’s helmet.
Just a lot of red flags.
The critical acclaim was alarming, in particular. At one point, I think Peele took to task the single reviewer who gave him a negative review. Now there are two. By comparison, Psycho has three negative reviews, and a 96%/94% to this film’s 99%/88%. When the critics are the throaty fan-girls to the relatively measured masses—well, ya gotta wonder.
So how is it?
Well, overall, it’s a shockingly hoary thriller that trips over its own logic, but it’s well-crafted enough that you might not notice. It tries so very hard to get you thinking one way that the Big Reveal may surprise you, sure, but you can’t reflect for even a moment on “How does any of this make sense?” I don’t mean this in a rational-look-at-horror way but as a trying-to-form-a-cohesive-picture-of-the-narrative way. See, the big thing is that it wants you to think that the story is racial so much that when it does its big double-reverse-bluffo (as we call overwrought twists around here) that you’re left with all these questions about the earlier scenes which no longer make sense because, surprise, it’s not really racial at all.
And I don’t consider that to be a spoiler but I am going to spoil in a bit here, so the capsule summary is: Well enough made, reasonably fun, ultra-cheesy horror flick that’s gotten blown way out of proportion by exploiting critics’ (and to a lesser extent audiences’) sensitivity to racial issues.
SETUP BEFORE THE SPOILERS
So, the premise of this film is that a rich white girl (Allison Williams, “Girls”, apparently) from Connecticut (or wherever) is taking her black boyfriend (Daniel Kaluuya, the upcoming Black Panther movie, Sicario) up to her parents place. He’s really nervous because, but she’s encouraging, leading us to believe that perhaps she’s naive, or maybe sticking it to her parents, or something like that. She’s way more aggressive and sensitive to perceived racial slights to him than he is, and one gets the distinct idea that she is trying to Prove A Point.
GETTING SPOILERY HERE
When they arrive at the family house a number of things turn up: Mom (Catherine Keener) and Dad (Stephen Root) are incredibly, awkwardly supportive of the situation, and the negro plight generally. Despite this, a couple of old black servants act strangely, robotically, almost as if their behaviors were constrained in some fashion.
The movie runs so hard in this direction, with black people not quite acting right, and white people acting really, really strange with our hero dismisses this as White People Acting Weird, that we’re inclined to believe that this is some kind of Stepford Wives situation, especially when it seems like “genuinely black” personalities break through to try to warn of The Danger.
So let me emphasize this again, before going full-on spoiler: The hero is so racist that he writes off the very suspicious white people behavior as Whitey Being White. And we don’t need to belabor the point that were the situation reversed—a white person getting himself into trouble because his personal racism allowed him to dismiss an entire group of people as Not Quite Right—there’s just no way we’d be permitted to see him as a hero, no matter what happened to him. (White Privilege strikes again!)
AND NOW, THE SPOILERS!
So, as it turns out, this isn’t The Stepford Wives so much as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die or The Atomic Brain or any of those other ’50s/’60s films involving implanting someone’s brain into someone else’s body. It’s not a full brain transplant, but some part of the white person’s brain goes into the black person’s brain and the white person then has control. Mostly. I don’t want to harp on the stupidity of this as a process because it’s a horror film and horror films are almost necessarily stupid (and I say that as a fan of the genre), and if you get to the point where you discover The Truth and Your Mind Is Blown then, very well, the movie is a success.
And this one most certainly is. But I’ll go out on a limb and say that that is, at least in part, due to the stupidity of our culture about race. Because as it turns out, there’s nothing racial here at all, the writer/director tells us. Blacks have been targeted much like one would buy pre-distressed jeans or an Apple Smart Watch. Our weird rich white people—who, in retrospect were not acting weird at all given their interest in the Hero—are using black bodies ’cause it’s kinda/sorta neat.
This is a perfectly reasonable explanation to pick a body, by the way, at least in any every day context where one is picking out bodies.
But in this context, it’s so unbelievably stupid that one has to wonder whether some of the praise of this movie is disingenuous. Here we have a rich, white Northeastern family whose patriarchs have decided, for giggles, to be black. Which is no problem at all, except they have to pose like the help whenever anyone comes around. (And they’re crappy at it.) All of a sudden, out of nowhere, this really, really white group is having really, really black members in a way that would seem to create legal issues as well. I mean, if you’re a member of a rich family and you want a piece of the action, you’re going to be able to wrest it away pretty easily from the help.
Basically, the whole aren’t-you-really-the-racist? angle is so belabored that it makes an otherwise well done film an eye-roller, at least for me and The Boy. I mean, people criticize Shyamalan, but this twist is the very definition of forced.
Also, some undetermined fraction of the new-body-owners’ behavior comes from the apparently incomplete control it gives them over the bodies. I mean, the original owners’ personality emerges at some awkward times. I guess this can be written off as “better than dying” but it seems like a pretty dubious value proposition to be trapped in a body with someone who hates you and can suddenly take over the body at any time. But I guess I can write that off as typical horror movie dumbness.
I did like the movie okay—unlike The Boy, who may have found it somewhat offensive even—and I think Peele’s got a lot of promise but I’d say this one is seriously over-hyped. I mean, for a mash-up of two crusty horror tropes it’s probably the best in its genre, but that’s a pretty low bar.