Nope is the new film from writer/director Jordan Peele, but you probably already knew that. Peele has joined the ranks of such luminary modern auteurs as M. Night Shyamalan and Christopher Nolan who’s mere name alone can sell tickets. This tradition can go down as far as Hitchcock where having a brand with a director’s name is enough for an audience to clamour at the box office. Like Nolan and Shyamalan, people have come to expect a certain type of event cinema when it comes to Peele’s brand. With Nope being only this third film, his type of signature style is embedded with horror and suspense, yet often with strong political, racial, and satirical undertones. Also with his background in sketch comedy, Peele never fails to throw in some laughs for good measure.
Nope seems to be continuing the conversations that were brought up in his earlier endeavors Get Out and Us, which dealt with ugly truths at the heart of liberal America. Here he takes aim at Hollywood, fame, and filmmaking itself, something he obviously has experience with. The film opens in a bizarre aftermath of a fictional 90s sitcom named Gordy’s Home, where one of its stars, a chimpanze has attacked and maimed the show’s cast members. We are then thrust to present day where we are introduced to a ranch owner by the name of Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), who handles horses for film and television productions. Otis is out wrangling horses with his son O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya), until he is inexplicedly killed by a falling coin which lodges itself inside his skull.
Six months go by and O.J. is now running his father’s business along with his more outgoing sister Em (Keke Palmer). After being fired from a job, O.J. has decided to sell some of their horses to a local theme park owner named Jupe (Steven Yuen). Jupe just happens to be the former child star of Gordy’s Home and uses the Haywood’s horses for a science fiction sideshow he presents to his patrons. But things begin to come to a head, once O.J. and Em notice their horses begin acting violently to an unknown presence, and perhaps more is going on than meets the eye.
To reveal more about Nope would be a sin, since Peele has the reputation of unveiling his true intentions as the story progresses. Suffice it to say, some movie experiences work best the less you know about them. However the twist or the surprise is only fodder for the themes that are dealt with in the film. Peele’s use of science fiction and horror is a subversive way to explore how audiences expect to be thrilled, and the sometimes, traumatic, and exploitive tactics one must use in order to gain that effect.
Hollywood has a long history of exploitation when it comes entertainment and it’s telling that Peele helps to make this point by using what is relatively known as the first film ever, that of a jockey riding a horse. The history behind this image was for entertainment purposes, and originated on a bet between two men that a horse can’t have all its feet off the ground while running. The jockey is also revealed to be a black man, which adds layers to the idea that both man and animal were used to benefit others. Though in the context of the film, the man is implied to be a relative of O.J. and Em, history has mostly swept him under the rug in favor of the man who actually made the film.
This all weaves back to the narrative in the film, and also to the chimpanzee on Gordy’s Home, where in the almost blinded pursuit of spectacle, there are sure to be casualties. There is irony therefore by making Nope itself a blockbuster spectacle with giant special effects, and an epic scope. Peele pulls no punches by making this his most ambitious visually spectacular film yet. The craft on display is immense, as the camera is used to sweeping effect hovering still one moment, then whipping along the next, usually in constant one shots. Peele uses the vast spaces of his locations to great effect, though not shying away from intimacy between characters. Relation wise, we are always aware of everyone is geographically which is always appreciated in this age of quick edits, and dislocated imagery.
There are also great moments of suspense, which are masterfully set-up, sometimes to service horrific events, or comedic punchlines. There were moments that filled me with glee, and charged me with delight just with the way they were crafted to give off a full effect. There is a certain scene involving a house and blood that I wouldn’t be surprised will be talked about for years in the annals of great horror moments.
Not only is this technically ambitious, it is packed full of themes, and ideas that sometimes feel too crammed for its own good. Peele has a lot on his mind which this review has only skimmed the surface of, and hinders the overall narrative slightly. While not as streamlined or neatly compact as Get Out or Us, this film is messier though more fascinating because of it. Peele often packs in too many references and loads it with characters that feel too often expendable.
While Kaluuya and Palmer serve as our core emotional relationship, other characters aren’t given the same amount of urgency or core. They are too often reduced to one dimensional side characters. Though he serves as the main comic relief, Brandan Perea gives some levity to the film when needed, however his UFO conspiracy/IT technician character Angel isn’t asked to be more than a faithful sidekick. Michael Wincott brings great gravitas to the role of a Quint-like cinematographer who is obsessed with filming an impossible shot, however he fails to leave a lasting impact, though you think he is meant to.
Perhaps the most egregious underutilized character comes from Steven Yeun’s Jupe. As a man who perversely re-packages his childhood trauma into family entertainment, Jupe has hidden depths which never seems to be fully explored. His tale turns into a cheap Icarus allegory which could have been dealt with more meaningfully. This is hinted at with his haunting yet hilarious monologue of how his Gordy’s Home experience was used as a parody for Saturday Night Live. It’s a stinging critique which touches on how real life horror can be processed for comedy purposes and homogenized into a Chris Kattan sketch.
Despite the messiness of the narrative, Nope remains fascinating, and will surely be talked about in years to come, as it leaves the viewer with a lot to chew on. In a sense, it reminded me of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, not just in the way it pays homage to it occasionally, but also how it uses spectacle to engage its viewer in its ideas. Peele is the type of filmmaker who means to provoke and enlighten his audience by using the genre of the fantastic. He understands how entertainment works with ideas, and that it can be a powerful tool to create a universal message. Despite its flaws Nope stays with you, and I have a feeling we’ll be talking about it for years to come.
3.5 stars out of 4