Get Out: A Score of Villains

March 11, 2018

           Before we begin, I'd just like to give a special thanks to Andrew Asemokai, who read through this and gave some great feedback. Thank you, Andrew!

           The first time I watched Get Out was on New Year’s Eve 2017. I had heard great things about the film, and I didn’t want to end the year without seeing it. So, I got an HBO channel trial on Amazon and made watching Get Out my countdown to the New Year. Thanks to that, Get Out now has its very rightful place among one of my favorite films of all time. I couldn’t stop thinking about it as I tried to go to sleep that night, and it lingered in my mind the days after that. And it wasn’t just the story and characters that stuck with me—it was the score, too. Why? Simple—Get Out is one of the most effective scores I’ve heard in a long time when it comes to having certain instruments portray certain story elements.

            If you’re not sure what I mean by that, believe when I say you’ve heard it before. Looney Tunes is a good example. “It’s rabbit season!” Daffy shouts, followed by some brass instruments asserting his claim. “Duck season.” Bugs counters, and some strings come in after his statement. As the characters go back and forth, their instruments do too. This kind of technique, with instruments representing different characters or different things in the story, is a little old-fashioned—at least, the way it was done in Looney Tunes is. So, if it’s done today, it’s done with a lot more subtlety.

            That brings us back to Get Out. Its score is performed by a smaller ensemble—mainly strings and harp, with flute, percussion, some other plucked strings and synths occasionally added to the mix—whose main instruments are a fantastic reflection of a group of the film’s characters, namely our villains. And the way this is done makes Get Out one of the most clever film scores I’ve ever heard.

            First, let’s talk about the strings. Almost without exception, strings are used whenever Rose’s family or their cult are on screen. If they’re on-screen, especially if there’s some allusion to their evil activities, expect strings. However, I’d go one further and say the strings stand in for not just the cult, but Rose’s immediate family specifically (including Georgina and Walter, aka Grandma and Grandpa). Why? Well, once the cult arrives, the strings fade into the background with low flute and a repeated harp motif coming into focus. The strings have more of a presence in the rest of the movie—i.e the scenes featuring Rose and the family. A highlight of this includes the combination of percussion and strings that plays as Chris kills the dad and brother respectively, but you’ll hear strings alongside almost every scene featuring the family.

            “Well, so what? The family’s around throughout the whole movie, so of course the strings would be.” Buckle up, because let’s talk about the harp—this is where things get interesting.

            Harp weaves in and out of the movie’s score throughout the film; it’s not playing constantly, but you’ll hear it at different points from start to end. And what I noticed with the harp is that it tends to come in when characters in the Sunken Place come on-screen. If strings represent our familial villains, the harp stands for those in the Sunken Place—a subtype of our villain characters. This includes Chris himself at certain points—he’s being brought to the Sunken Place, after all—but I’m mainly talking about Georgina, Walter, and Logan. When they’re around, listen for harp; it’ll often be there accompanying these characters, those in the Sunken Place.

           There are many, many examples of this, but I’ll just talk about one. The morning after his hypnotism, Chris approaches Walter to speak with him, with strings swelling as Chris approaches the other man. Just as Chris reaches Walter, and he says "Nothing I don't want to be doing" while smiling quite unnervingly, our harp enters the scene. It (along with our strings) doesn't stop until soon after Chris walks away; that is, until we leave Walter, our Sunken Place character, behind. 

           (Another thing of note in this scene—right after Walter mentions Mrs. Armitage, some high string notes are introduced to the scene's score. To me, this seems like a very purposeful move on the part of our composer, Michael Abels.)

            With that said, let me point out a place where this idea falls apart a bit.

            The end of the movie shows a confrontation between Chris, Rose, and Walter. The score here features strings, percussion, and maybe some melodic soft synth…but no harp. This really stands out given its presence among the other scenes with Sunken Place characters, including Walter. Still, since harp is a key part of many other scenes featuring said characters, I think my theory still has merit. But I did want to point out this facet of the ending’s score.

            Finally, let’s talk about one more instrument: the low flute. It’s not a big part of the score—you’ll hear it soon after the cult comes to the house yet it leaves as Chris wanders around the “family gathering”, rarely to return—but it really stuck with me the first time I watched Get Out. A flute in its low range is the antithesis of what a flute is for. Flute works best in its high range; that’s where it soars. In its low range, a flute can’t sing very loudly and has less chance to shine. And I have a theory about this low flute, a flute with its wings clipped. Given that you hear it when the cult gathers at the house and very few other places, it’s as if the flute is a reflection of how the cult members see Chris. They don’t see him as an amazingly talented young man with a bright future as a photographer; there’s no glance toward his sincere love for Rose, his humanity, or anything else related to the previously mentioned. They only see him as a potential vessel and nothing more. They’re blinded to the other sides of Chris, and the little they do see they don’t care about—they want to clip his wings, and their blind view is reflected in a flute with its wings clearly and fully clipped.

           All of this—the unique use of a small ensemble, one that features two particular instruments and intersperses others—is, to me, one of the most interesting things about the movie, almost as interesting as the plot and characters that kept me up at night. The ensemble, small as it is, uses its two main instruments to portray our villains: the family, their Sunken Place compatriots, and the mindset of their cult. The score is centered around the villains in a way I’m not sure I’ve heard before, and this, alongside Get Out’s other compelling elements, keeps the film at the forefront of my mind—and firmly established as one of my favorites.

Favorite Score Moments

            Favorite score moments are parts of the score I liked the most. Some are subtle, some are not, but all stood out to me. They’re not necessarily the same as my favorite scenes, as some of the most interesting parts of a score can come during a film’s understated moments.

            -After Chris walks upstairs post-killing dad and son, we hear some harp. It teases the ear as Chris walks upstairs and then…Georgina appears. The harp foreshadows her presence before she appears on-screen. I love stuff like that!

            -A plucked harp motif plays over and over during the scene where Chris and Rose talk to the cult members (“Is it better?” “Black is in fashion!”). This is the only place in the film with a noticeable musical theme, which makes it very interesting. I think it’s meant to show the cult’s anticipation of Chris going into the Sunken Place—and becoming one of the Sunken Place villains—with the repeated motif perhaps showing the cult members’ identical mindset on this matter. Whatever the case, the use of a repeated musical idea makes this part of the movie stand out to me.

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©2019 by Eliana Zebro