Daniel Kaluuya is a rarity for a best leading actor nominee in being nominated for a horror film, however he is not completely unprecedented in terms of Oscar history. Jason Miller was nominated for The Exorcist in supporting however that was in reality a leading turn. Both actors are essentially the "straight men" discovering this supernatural element that is the essential terror of the film, and the characters both share the burden of having lost their mothers which heavily weighs on both of them. It is still notable that Kaluuya secured this nomination for this role, as it is purposefully the least flashy performance in the film. Chris is meant to be just a pretty normal guy. In the early scenes of the film Kaluuya plays the part without manner or unneeded extravagance. He realizes just a bit of anxiousness as he asks his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) about the upcoming visit however he only carries just a bit more unease than the average man would feel in such circumstances. Kaluuya though presents him as rather calm though and does particularly well in portraying Chris as wholly smitten with Rose bringing a real honesty towards the relationship at every step. He establishes he obviously loves her a great deal, and importantly does shows that this relationship is very important Chris, important enough to stay even when things start to get weird.
The overt weirdness doesn't start right away though as he meets her whole family with her overeager father (Bradley Whitford), easily embarrassed mother (Catherine Keener), and just slightly screwy brother (Caleb Landry Jones) greet him with fairly open arms. Aside from unneeded "accommodations" by the family around his skin color the situation initially isn't anything too off the beaten path. Kaluuya's performance though is effective in that he manages to exude a certain level of embarrassment when asked about his relationship with their daughter, or his smoking habit. Kaluuya makes these though very natural in his work as just a generalized tension of still meeting new people. This is in slight contrast though to when Rose's father constantly seems to make remarks slowly due to Chris being black, and not necessarily unpleasant remarks however he over emphasizes them. Kaluuya's very good in these moments in his reactions kind of internalize this slight eye roll within presenting just a courteous enough manner in his interactions. Kaluuya's great as he meekly kind of delivers his "it's fine" when responding to the behavior as he so well portrays that Chris is being made somewhat uncomfortable by this however he more than easily attunes himsel to just letting it go.
Unfortunately for Chris things begin to get much stranger though as he comes across more people within the circle including the family's African American servants who are not quite right in any sense, and later a large group of elderly friends. This sequence reminded me most of The Wicker Man where our main character attempts to understand what's going amidst a group of people who seem courteous yet quietly hostile at the same time. Kaluuya's work here becomes a performance of really pitch perfect reactions. Kaluuya on one end just does terrific work in creating just a growing unease in Chris with every strange person, and does so well to slowly become gradually all the more nervous the weirder questions he is asked. Kaluuya though also finds a bit of humor at times in these reactions, that are interwoven well at first where he depicts Chris at first thinking maybe just a few of the people are asking odd question. When they all start asking the odd questions Kaluuya effectively moves towards a more overt yet still internalized terror in the man. That is until the titular moment of the film where he meets yet another oddly acting African American man who suddenly lashes out at him. Kaluuya properly delivers the sheer intensity of the fear and the outright confusion in his every being as it becomes clear that something is not right.
The one major challenge, past that of the requirements of the horror straight man, is found within Chris's past involving the death of his mother in a car accident which is realized through the best scene in the film, and the best scene of Kaluuya's performance where he is covertly hypnotized by Rose's mother. Kaluuya is fantastic in this scene as he manages to naturally depict Chris slowly falling into the trance of the hypnosis while also conveying within that constriction the emotion flooding within Chris as he relives the death of his mother. Kaluuya uses his tears so effectively here as he realizes Chris's terrible anguish even while so well depicting him becoming caught within the trap of hypnosis. This leads to the iconic image of the film, which Kaluuya deserves a lot of credit for which is Chris getting lost into the "sunken place". That expression is perfection as it is this summation of this hollowed terror. Now as impressive as that single scene is it is also pivotal in terms of giving understanding to Chris's actions as he stays at the house far longer than sanity should allow. This best realized in his final romantic moment with Rose who eases his fear. Kaluuya's very good in this final scene as he reveals his vulnerabilities to her, however in this moment shows how this assuages his fears. Kaluuya importantly delivers this sense of need in his tenderness in Rose, showing a sense of comfort in their connection not only for the present situation but also in regards to the death of his mother.
The final act of the film is when the most overt horror begins, as do the spoilers, as Chris finds himself the volunteered donor of his body for the highest bidder. Kaluuya here wholly delivers on his end, even as the film too often cuts away diminishing the scenes somewhat, in portraying the completely overwhelming fear in Chris as he learns the truth. He carries this properly creating the true sense of horror as he learns of his true purpose for the family. Kaluuya properly keeps this as a constant even as Chris attempts to make his escape, which he carefully does not make Chris suddenly some sort of action hero. Kaluuya instead realizes this man fighting for his life in a particularly visceral sense. Every moment of his personal battle Kaluuya keeps building the tension by bringing such a palatable sense of desperation in Chris as he essentially goes from one threat to another. Kaluuya keeps the emotions very much alive as throughout the climax builds the wear in Chris even beyond just how exhausted he is. Kaluuya makes the brutality that Chris himself must deliver to survive takes something out of him, and exudes the pain it takes in him as he witnesses this death and destruction as well as is forced to take part in it. His best scene in this sequence is perhaps in the end where he faces down the revealed to be sociopath Rose. Kaluuya as he attempts his personal revenge is outstanding in bringing the initial hatred of his betrayal in his eyes as he chokes her, however so well depicts his old love for her, which was real on his end, fade into his mind that keeps him from killing her. By the end of the film Kaluuya shows all that Chris has been through as he exits the film, though he has survived, he reveals the toll that all of it has taken on him. Although his work is the least overtly showy within the film Kaluuya delivers the best performance in the film acting as this needed anchor that not only allows the horror to get under your skin, but also anchors it to a real emotional core within his character.