GET OUT ANALYSIS: PART TWO
(SPOILERS: Get Out – of course!) This week I continue my analysis of writing techniques in the horror movie Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) by looking at the use of planting and payoff. Planting and payoff is a powerful tool for screenwriters that can serve many purposes. First, it helps make story points believable. In the third act of Get Out, we discover that the character of Dean is doing surgery to transplant brains from one body to another. We believe he is capable of that because in act one it was established that he is a neurosurgeon. If we got to act three and someone said, “Oh, by the way, Dean’s a neurosurgeon,” it might seem arbitrary and convenient, a cheat by the writer. But planting it earlier makes it part of the reality of the story. Planting and payoff can also build trust in the audience that the things they are seeing have meaning. It’s helpful to plant something and then pay it off early in the film to build that trust. For example, Rose tells Chris that her father (Dean) would have voted for Obama a third time if he could've, and then Dean tells Chris the same thing shortly after they meet. And on the drive up, Rose throws Chris’s cigarette out of the window, and then Dean notices Chris’s nervous hand and asks if he’s a smoker. Chris replies that he’s trying to quit.
These little early connections between scenes are particularly useful in Get Out considering the long build up to the more explicit horror elements that I discussed in my last post. Because we know the things we see aren’t just random and will pay off in the story, we stay patient, trying to unravel the clues we’re being given, trusting that there is something to unravel. Planting can also serve to establish a fact that can be used later for dramatic effect. For example, in act one we learn that Rose’s grandfather was an Olympic caliber runner. We later learn that his brain has been put in the body of Walter, the groundskeeper, who we saw running at night. So when Rose says, “Get him, Grandpa” to Walter, we know that Chris probably won’t be able to outrun his pursuer. Similarly, we learn in the party scene that a camera flash can temporarily restore the original consciousness to a victim. Chris then uses that knowledge to get out of a predicament at the end of the film. One of the most satisfying things in a story is when the character is put in a seemingly impossible predicament, and then cleverly – and believably – gets out of it. Get Out has a particularly brilliant example of this at the end of act two. Chris is tied to a chair in the basement of the family house as they prepare to operate on him. He’s been hypnotized so that he passes out whenever someone taps a teacup three times with a spoon. He appears completely helpless. But then Chris turns the tables on his captors by putting cotton in his ears and feigning unconsciousness when the teacup is tapped. And this moment is made possible by two excellent uses of planting and payoff. One is Chris’s habit of scratching at the arm of a chair when he’s nervous. We learned earlier that this stems from when he was home alone as a child and his mother didn’t return as expected. It’s reinforced when we see Chris scratch at the chair as Missy (Rose’s mother) asks him uncomfortable questions. So we aren’t surprised when we see Chris scratch at the arm of the chair he’s tied to at the end of act two. But it is this scratching that exposes the chair’s cotton stuffing that he uses to plug his ears. The average viewer may not appreciate how carefully the writer set this up. Almost certainly, Peele had the idea of Chris stopping up his ears with cotton from the chair first, and then went back and planted the scratching behavior to make that plausible.
Peele established the behavior so we don’t question it when it happens. But by setting up the behavior, Peele also distracts us from the twist. We assume the scratching is in the scene merely as a sign of Chris’s anxiety and don’t anticipate how it will save him. When you want to have a twist, you need to lay the expositional groundwork to make the twist believable, but that risks giving it away.
By giving the plant another purpose in the scene, you misdirect the audience. The other great use of plant and payoff that is critical to this scene is the tapping on the cup. The tapping trigger and its effect is established in the hypnotism scene (we actually get a foreshadowing of it when the family is sitting on the deck after Chris first arrives.) It first pays off when he’s trying to leave, and Missy taps the teacup to incapacitate him. We now fully understand the rules of the device. This device can then be used when Chris escapes from the chair. When we see the teacup in the video, we know what will happen. And when Chris pulls the cotton from his ears later, we understand how he foiled the villains without needing some clunky explanation in dialogue. The device pays off one more time when Chris encounters Missy on the way out of the house. Both their gazes go to a teacup on the table. They both lunge for it. Chris gets there first and knocks the cup to the floor. Missy is foiled. By establishing the device for the audience, the writer can use it to create interesting drama in later scenes. Planting and payoff also help establish and explore the racial themes that made Get Out a movie with cultural impact. I’ll explore that more in my next post.