Thursday, March 1, 2018

Long Shot Week: Best Director - Jordan Peele ("Get Out")

Scene from Get Out
Welcome to the first Long Shot Week, where I will attempt to persuade you to think outside of the Oscar box. While it's too late to change voters' minds, I believe that audiences need to take a moment to look at the other contenders in any category and give them a chance. Long Shot Week is designed as a way to highlight these talents that likely don't stand a chance of winning, but more than deserve a chance to be appreciated for what they bring to the game. In a way, this is my list of "Films that should've won," though it's not always indicative of my favorite. Join me all week as I look at different categories and pose the question "Why not?" in hopes that The Oscars still have a few surprises up their sleeve.

Long Shot: Jordan Peele (Get Out)
Category: Best Director
Other Nominees:
-Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk)
-Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)
-Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread)
-Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water)
Likely Winner: Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water)

The Case for Jordan Peele (Get Out)

As I have mentioned before, it's been a great year when two horror films stand a chance at winning a lot of major prizes. In fact, it's great to see Guillermo del Toro as the front runner for Best Director, largely because he brings something incredible and new to monster cinema, making it frightening and psychological without resorting to gimmicks. There's no denying that what he's created is a ballet about loneliness through a nostalgic lens, and it's an award that seems overdue from the days of Pan's Labyrinth. Still, if this is a sign of what's to come, then I'm psyched to see The Shape of Water not only have the most Oscar nominations of this year's group, but also the front runner in major ways. True, it's still a taboo story in ways that may keep it from being a surefire hit, but let's face it... a monster movie is being taken seriously and that's a great achievement.

But here comes the issue. The other horror movie, Get Out, is arguably an even more impressive feat given how much attention the film has maintained since its February (!) 2017 release. The film has spawned a college course, several memes, and an overall boost of respect for the genre that's been relegated to cheap theaters as b-movie releases. Still, the modern era is a godsend for horror because it has managed to translate into art, and in the case of Jordan Peele's film... social commentary the likes of which continue to be recognized and felt to this day. It's a powerful film that rewards nitpicking and also shows a subversion of tropes that actually feels fresh. If there was one film that would represent a culturally relevant Oscar movie, Get Out is that film without any close competition. It's a culmination of a genre's ascendancy to prestige, and it earned every percentage of it.

But why is that the case? As mentioned before, a large part of that comes from the screenplay. There's a lot of subtle detail that makes this arguably one of the tightest-written screenplays of the modern era. But as much as it works, I think that the real reason this movie is a masterpiece is because of the direction. As anyone who has studied the film, even read an online essay about it, they will notice the attention to detail that went into every second of that film. There's the typical elements such as misleads and ratcheting up tension. But there's also directorial choices that are astounding, such as moments that symbolize America's racial history. In these moments, they can cover centuries within the breadth of seconds and find horror in the mundane. Peele manipulates the frame so that everything has a power to it, and he makes it resonate on an intellectual level. As much as this works as a horror movie that's scary, it also works because of every decision that went into the direction and writing.

For instance, there is a key element to the directing that makes the whole movie work. If the viewer goes in cold, they will assume that the idea of being in a white neighborhood is just odd. However, the central cast of white actors all have one moment where they appear abnormal. It helps to keep them from coming across as campy or artificial. In its place is the lingering sense that the viewer must be suspicious, even misjudging certain characters well into the third act. There's nuance in these choices that appear upon second or even third viewings. It was all apparent, and only knowing so makes it more fascinating to witness. The film changes without losing its energy, and instead becomes an exploration of how cultures manipulate each other. Peele's direction, especially for a first timer, shines because he isn't only visually referencing other films. He's using the entire cinematic language to understand these characters in a way that wouldn't be out of place in an Alfred Hitchcock movie like Psycho.

If this all wasn't enough, there's an ongoing subplot regarding the protagonist's friend: a TSA agent who becomes suspicious of things. It may play like silly jokes about sex slaves, but even this fit of juvenile humor leads to some poignant revelation and levity. He is the savior because he embodies a force of good that is helpless in a different way. Still, Peele's stroke of genius is what comes in the third act. When things look to be at their worst, it cuts to the TSA agent's plot where he deals comically with law forces who doubt his word. It's a moment crucial to the plot, but manages to be funny enough to relieve some of the distress that comes with the main plot. A lesser director would likely either play up the comedy or horror, but Peele balances it in a way that makes it neither full horror or comedy. It's all part of one rich tapestry, and his time between the two keeps the other from being overbearing.

Get Out is one of those great awards season miracles. It's a film from early in the year that more than warrants its high consideration, not to mention a Best Picture and Best Director nomination. Still, there's a reason that this is a horror film that's taken seriously in a field that's otherwise familiar to Oscar archetypes. This is a film that pushes boundaries and becomes a jarring picture about race relations. It does so without engaging in tropes that are grotesque or seen as frustrating. Instead, it's a balance of everything that ends up being the film's biggest strength. As much as the other films arguably have showier direction that is equally worthy of praise, Peele may secretly have delivered a powerhouse film that should beat them all anyways. It comes with an intensity that is hard to ignore. It's a film that is significant instead of just feeling that way. As much as I'm glad it will more than likely win Best Original Screenplay, I hope that Peele has another statue on his mantle not too much later in the ceremony.

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