Over the next month, The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment and unpacking what it says about 2017. First upis Jordan Peele’s Get Out. (Read our previous entries here.)
Thirty minutes into the horror film Get Out, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) senses something malevolent is afoot as he sits down to talk about his smoking problem with his girlfriend’s mom, Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener). A first-time guest at the Armitages’ home, Chris had just watched the family’s groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) charge at him in the dead of night, as if chasing an invisible enemy. Then Chris saw the housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) staring at her own reflection in a zombified state. Walter and Georgina are both African American, like Chris. Missy and her husband Dean (Bradley Whitford), who are white, have already copped to the unfortunate optics of being waited on by black employees in their fancy country estate, while insisting the pair are part of the family.
Still reeling from Georgina and Walter’s odd behavior, Chris tries to return to his bedroom when a light flicks on: It’s Missy, sitting quietly in the living room. She invites Chris to join her. “Do you realize how dangerous smoking is?” she asks him, with a hint of a smile. Earlier, Missy—a therapist—had offered to hypnotize Chris to cure him of his nicotine cravings. It’s clear, both to Chris and to the viewer, that a trap is being sprung. But what can he really do?
The title of Jordan Peele’s film—which begins as social satire and evolves, in this scene, into nightmarish terror—references what audiences should be shouting at Chris by now. But Peele wants viewers to see how Missy is subtly using her default power over Chris in this situation (he’s in her house, he’s dating her daughter) to make it all but impossible for him to refuse her request. She’s obviously preparing to lecture him about his vice, but what follows next is, of course, much worse.
“Do you smoke in front of my daughter?” Missy asks. “I’m gonna quit, I promise,” Chris replies, trying to cut the tension by smiling and laughing. “That’s my kid, that is my kid, you understand?” Missy replies, as the noise of her spoon scraping across her teacup slowly builds in the background. Soon, she’s asking more probing personal questions about Chris’s mother—the manner of her death (a car accident) and his memories of that day, when he was unable to help her. He starts to cry in spite of himself, betraying feelings he’d never want to reveal to a relative stranger, until he’s completely emotionally exposed. And hypnotized.
“You can’t move. You’re paralyzed,” Missy whispers in triumph. “Just like that day when you did nothing. You did nothing. Now … sink into the floor. Sink.” The image that follows is simple, surprising, and perfectly chilling. Chris slides down through the chair and into a dark void, suspended in nothingness and gazing up at a tiny screen–like view of the outside world. “Now you’re in the Sunken Place.” Missy intones. When he wakes up the next morning, Chris tries to dismiss his fall into the abyss as a bad dream to his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams).
At its most basic level, the Sunken Place represents Missy’s total control over Chris. Get Out’s early tension comes from Chris’s discomfort around Rose’s family and the odd behavior of their black “servants,” as Dean calls them; Missy’s hypnotic attack is the first open acknowledgement of the Armitages’ hostility. But the Sunken Place metaphor clearly has a broader meaning, too. It’s the beginning of the mayhem Peele then unleashes, and an image that serves as a bedrock for the rest of the story—including the film’s terrifying reveal of how the Armitages view and treat black people.
The idea of the Sunken Place immediately defined Get Out (which was a box-office sensation) and transcended it. Peele described the concept’s relevance to the African American experience today in a series of tweets not long after the movie’s February release: “We’re all in the Sunken Place … the Sunken Place means we’re marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us.” Indeed, the film cleverly uses the horror genre to amplify America’s ingrained racism, exploring subjects such as cultural appropriation and the dark legacy of slavery via Chris’s battle of wills with Missy and Dean. The Sunken Place is so potent as a symbol that it’s already become a piece of cultural shorthand (and the centerpiece of a course taught at UCLA on the “Black Horror Aesthetic”).
Get Out will probably stand both as the definitive film of 2017 and as the one with the longest cultural shelf life, in part because of moments like the hypnosis scene. The encounter is all the more horrifying because of how powerless Chris is even before Missy has taken over his mind—and because of how he’s left with no logical way to talk or think about the very real violation he just experienced. The exchange is a master class in creating tension and in the effectiveness of simple storytelling: All viewers need to understand what’s going on is the sound of the spoon on the teacup, the shot of Chris’s tear-stained face, and the bleak, formless look of the Sunken Place itself.
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