Written and Directed by: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, and Steven Yeun
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You're about to witness an absolute spectacle. So what happens next? You're ready? ARE YOU READY?"
Note: this review contains spoilers.
Filmmaking is often a mad pursuit. There’s no shortage of tales throughout cinematic history lionizing the efforts of artists who dared to dream so big that their goals were considered impossible. But isn’t that the genesis of cinema, capturing the impossible? At one point, the notion of simply making pictures move would have been the stuff of fantasy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Georges Méliès, one of the first cinematic pioneers, was a magician. Sometimes, I think we take this for granted, this unspoken pact that film can be a transcendent experience, capable of revealing impossible spectacle. Maybe it was bound to happen in an era where technological advances have rendered the extraordinary mundane: what was once impossible is now routinely conjured to the screen by small armies of digital artists, making it harder than ever for filmmakers to coax genuine awe. Thanks to the ubiquity of screens, we’re a culture that sees more than ever, and our capacity for wonder has diminished, something that seems to have been on Jordan Peele’s mind when hatching Nope, a film explicitly concerned with capturing the impossible on film.
With his third outing, Peele isn’t just looking to astound audiences with summer blockbuster spectacle: he’s probing the need for spectacle, all while paying tribute to the unhinged, compulsive madness that drives people to capture it on camera and then consume it in the first place. In many ways, Nope is Jordan Peele’s New Nightmare, a metafictional exploration of how filmmaking is a vital component of the human experience, particularly when it comes to harnessing horror: it’s not enough for us to look at the horrific—we have to actively confront it by capturing it and sharing it to reach catharsis. Simply put, we crave horror, especially when it’s thrilling—and Nope itself is nothing if not a rollicking thrill ride, a kick-ass monster movie that’s bursting with the very movie magic it celebrates.
Peele invokes cinematic history, presenting siblings O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em Haywood (Keke Palmer), the descendants of the Black jockey captured in Eadweard Muybridge’s "The Horse in Motion," the world’s first moving image. Now the proprietors of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, they provide animal wrangling services for various productions out of their ranch in Agua Dulce. However, their father’s (Keith David, whose screen time is mostly up before his name appears in the credits) bizarre death has left a void. Both their business and ranch have seen better days, and O.J. is barely keeping things afloat by selling off horses to Jupe Park (Steven Yeun), a former child actor who now runs an old west tourist trap in a nearby valley. A unique opportunity arises, though, when strange phenomena begin haunting the ranch in the form of random power outages and bizarre cloud formations that may or may not be hiding a flying saucer. Determined to capture it on camera, they team up with a geeky electronics expert (Brandon Perea) to surveil the ranch, hoping to get a literal money shot that will catapult them to the spotlight.
It’s a spotlight they’ve perhaps always deserved, being Hollywood royalty and all. However, Hollywood’s ruthless treatment of anyone who dares to step anywhere near the spotlight is one of the many throughlines running through Nope. Faded glory hangs over the film: a bemused O.J. finds himself toiling away on a commercial shoot that goes awry before returning to his desolate ranch. Jupe has never escaped the shadow of his childhood stardom and keeps a monument of his former triumphs, a morbid sort of mausoleum hoarding old props from his stint on a 90s sitcom that ended when its chimp went on a bloody rampage. He’s nestled away in what would be an actual Hollywood western ghost town if not for his tourist attraction, whose scattered attendance indicates it’s seen better days, too. The famous cinematographer (Michael Wincott) that O.J. and Em eventually enlist carries himself with a weathered, worldly weariness that suggests he’s pinned all of his artistic hopes to this particular gig. Even Angel, the goofy tech geek, has hit a rough patch since his longtime girlfriend broke up with him.
Saddling us with this ragtag, motley crew of underdogs is one of Peele’s best decisions in Nope, a film that finds him digging into Speilberg’s bag of tricks more than once. But it’s this particular trick—crafting rich, compelling characters with charismatic actors—that serves as the crucial foundation. With 130 minutes at his disposal, Peele’s signature patience is given even more room to breathe, and, while he spends plenty of time building dread, he’s equally invested in just hanging out with a set of characters whose lovable resolve comes to define the film. Kaluuya and Palmer are tremendous in building an easygoing sibling rapport. There’s some brief tension early on because Em has other ventures and now considers the family business to be her side project now, but the duo doesn’t dwell upon this once they realize and embrace the opportunity ahead of them. Nope is a better movie for it because Peele resists overcooked sentiment, allowing Kaluuya and Palmer the space to realize these characters without binding them to maudlin cliché.
He already helped make Kaluuya a star with Get Out, and Nope makes it undeniable: this guy just has it, an elusive, magnetic quality that gives him and incredible screen presence. His O.J. is stoic, often communicating with grunts and gestures, very much his gruff father’s taciturn son. His decision to underplay what is essentially the lead role is an interesting choice, and while the script grants him some heroic moments, his perceptive reluctance gives O.J. an interesting, every man quality. He’s the Chief Brody of a movie that grows into a Jaws riff, a guy who didn’t ask to be drawn into this ordeal but can’t imagine sitting idly by. He couldn’t be much more different from his sister: where O.J. can barely speak to the cast and crew gathered on-set at the commercial, she rolls in, a consummate show-woman and huckster, and confidently delivers her schtick. The pair’s mismatched energy is oddly harmonious, and it’s fun to watch their personalities bounce off of each other and the others who are drawn into their orbit.
Perea is a breakout star here in a tricky role that requires him to bring some pathos to a role that’s mostly comic relief. He’s very much an interloper, a random guy who just happens to be a UFO fanatic and feels compelled to butt in on the Haywoods’ plot. In many ways, he’s an audience surrogate: someone who’s dying to see whatever’s haunting this ranch, a dynamic that Peele humorously exploits as he toys with the audience. Yeun’s Jupe is another odd presence, and another tricky role: this former child star desperately trying to cling to past glory might seem pathetic on the page, but Yeun finds something tragic beneath this cliché exterior by latching onto Jupe’s understandable desperation. Here’s another one of Hollywood’s casualties, haunted by a traumatic experience, yet still here, trying to eek out a living on the fringes of Tinseltown.
Likewise, Wincott’s grizzled cinematographer is compelling because he’s Quint reimagined as a filmmaker who’s spent his life in search of the perfect shot. His gravelly voice—which feels like it’s wrestling with each syllable, dragging each word from the guttural depths—also makes him feel like an old gunslinger summoned back into the frontier one last showdown, his analog cameras holstered like old pistols. Remarkably, all of these idiosyncratic characters don’t feel forced or mannered: they’re all quirky but not ironically detached, and their humorous presence never diminishes the terror. Much has been made about Peele’s prowess after his first two pictures, and Nope makes it clear that his uncanny ability to blend horror with humor is one of his greatest strengths. Historically, this has been a tricky mash-up to navigate because horror-comedies sometimes tend to be too arch or too broad, often at the expense of the horror. Nope is simply a horror movie with pointed moments of levity, a dynamic that makes all the difference.
It’s Peele’s most fun film in this regard: untethered from the weighty social concerns that drove Get Out and Us, Nope can easily be enjoyed as 130 minutes of a director flexing his cinematic muscles. In fact, I would argue that the film’s subtext—which functions on one level as an ode to craft and showmanship—encourages you to do so. This is simply a gangbusters horror movie: magnificently crafted with a sharp sense of purpose, it mounts dread with an effortless ease, preying upon the audience's desire to know what’s lurking in the suspiciously static clouds looming over the ranch. DP Hoyte van Hoytema is instrumental here in transforming the vast, azure California sky and its dusty valleys into an eerie canvas whose empty spaces become foreboding. The utter stillness becomes unsettling as the camera reveals fleeting glimpses and captures odd sounds, teasing a sun-splashed mystery that becomes a dusky, moonlit nightmare when the inhabitant in the clouds descends, spreading awe and terror in its wake.
It turns out that Peele isn’t exactly playing coy about the mystery: the characters quickly assume it’s aliens, and our first glimpse of the phenomena comes in the form of a vintage flying saucer. An early scene out in the ranch’s horse stalls leans all the way into this when O.J. encounters kids wearing Roswell gray alien garb for a gag. Peele deploys another one of those Spielbergian tricks when characters look up in awe at some unseen wonder, leading the audience to the obvious conclusion: aliens. It’s only a bait-and-switch in the sense that the extraterrestrial life in question is quite unlike any other ever brought to the screen, and it’s arguably Peele’s biggest coup. Eschewing typical alien invasion theatrics for straight-up monster movie mayhem, Nope’s horrors become more intimately pitched once the nature of the creature is revealed during a sequence that sends its would-be prey scurrying for the safety of their houses and cars, where they can only cower in fear as blood rains from the skies and less-fortunate victims wail in the distance, their screams floating on a violent wind.
Working in concert with an extended flashback to Jupe’s harrowing ordeal, this impressive sequence coils up all of the anxious, unsettling tension in Nope into a ball. I suspect the flashback will be a divisive interlude, particularly because it arrives right in the middle of the movie, just when it looks like the momentum is hurtling towards the big blow-off. However, it’s a brilliant intercalary chapter of sorts, one that’s not only unlocking some of the film’s themes but also instrumental in prolonging the suspense. It’s also exactly the type of big swing you love to see a confident filmmaker take, a mid-movie diversion that’s an excuse to flex some more chops (the whole sequence is unbearably tense) while laying some thematic underpinning. It’s just some brilliant shit, man—Peele is one of those filmmakers where I just have to throw up my hands and acknowledge that he’s firing on a creative wavelength that demands appreciation because of its sheer ambition. He’s a lot like M. Night Shyamalan in that respect, only his big swings have yet to miss.
Blowing off all of the tension with a big, rousing climax requires another big swing, and it’s hard to imagine going bigger than echoing Jaws. But that’s exactly what Peele does when he has his ragtag crew go on the offensive during a climax that cleverly coaxes more suspense from inflatable balloon men and one more mysterious intruder who strolls in, the harsh sunshine gleaming off of their silvery helmet as their intentions come into focus. Composer Michael Abels channels his inner John Williams as Peele and van Hoytema capture Kaluuya’s breathtaking horseback exploits and his colleagues’ increasingly tricky task of capturing the saucer on camera. It’s the sort of spectacular summer blockbuster entertainment we often take for granted: in a Hollywood landscape where $200 million routinely summons digital sound and fury signifying nothing, Nope is a reminder that it’s the fundamentals of cinema—purposeful camerawork, precise editing, inventive production and sound design—that are responsible for the spectacle in the first place.
That reminder is apt and appropriate since Nope functions as an ode to the unsung craftsmen that make these miracles possible. The Haywoods and their makeshift crew coming together to capture spectacle on film makes for an obvious allegory, and Peele’s perceptible sympathy for them makes Nope an unrepentant celebration of filmmaking alchemy. These forgotten Hollywood cast-offs have no business trying to capture the impossible—and yet, here they are, risking life and limb to do just that for our amusement. Of course, their motives aren’t completely altruistic: they’re hoping to get a money shot because they see it as their ticket to fame and fortune, after all. Peele doesn’t ignore the darker side of the pursuit of spectacle by probing everyone’s incessant craving for it: artists need to harness it, while audiences need to simply see it. Nope explores this dichotomy, reminding us that exploitation and spectacle are familiar bedfellows, as it becomes a cautionary tale about compulsive consumption. Creating spectacle can feel miraculous, yes, but our addiction to it may be a heavy price to pay for both the creators (let’s just say not everyone survives this quest for the perfect shot) and complacent audiences who simply keep looking (those who do survive realize that the creature only attacks when it’s looked upon).
Peele’s continues these musings during the show-stopping flashback, where Gordy is wheeled onto a sitcom set for the audience’s amusement until a balloon pops, startling him and inspiring a different kind of spectacle—a bad miracle, if you will—when he goes berserk, embodying the film’s ominous invocation to Nahum 3:6: “And I will cast abominable filth upon thee, and make thee vile, and will set thee as a spectacle. In short, it’s a Biblical passage about fucking around and finding out when the city of Ninevah faces the wrath of God as punishment for its rampant sin. Considering most of Nope unfolds in the outskirts of Hollywood, it’s not a stretch to consider it an allegory for the movie industry’s reckless treatment of those unappreciated cast and crew members the film celebrates. Folks like Jupe—who’s left clinging to relevance now that he’s no longer a child star—and the Haywoods—whose family business is wilting due to shifting tides—were instrumental in delivering spectacle until Hollywood chewed them up and spit them out, deeming them unnecessarily and irrelevant. It’s startling but hardly surprising that Gordy’s brains wind up splattered all over the set and even poor Jupe himself once the police arrive and violently put him down. In another, ironic twist of the knife, Jupe proudly recounts how the experience became fodder for an SNL skit, suggesting that we even turn processing trauma into a spectacle. Jupe can’t bear to tell the story itself, relying instead on the farcical skit that belies just how incredibly fucked-up the experience was.
All of this, of course, unfolds in the shadow of an alien creature that swoops from the skies to literally chew up its prey before spitting them out, making it yet another obvious allegory, this time for that callous Hollywood meat-grinder. But there’s something more here too: at one point, Jupe refers to the alien creature as “the viewers,” mistakenly assuming that it has come in peace and is content to merely look upon his own wonderstruck audience as a spectacle. Jupe’s assumption makes for a nice, harmonious symbiotic loop, spectacle gazing upon spectacle until, once again, the illusion is broken and this creature decides it won’t be exploited any further. While this seems like a tidy doppelganger for the Gordy ordeal, it’s worth noting that this character’s weakness is material it can’t easily digest. As long as it feeds on what it likes, it thrives, but it’s quick to reject anything it finds distasteful, an Achilles heel that ultimately makes for great spectacle but also implores us to identify with the creature. After all, are the spectacle-craving audiences it devours any different? It’s not just that we crave spectacle—we often expect it to conform to our expectations, and deviation is often met with swift rejection.
Maybe this is Peele’s preemptive strike against audiences expecting him to conform to the expectations he’s already engendered during his short career. I imagine it must be somewhat burdensome to not only carve such a specific niche but to utterly master it with your first two movies, and Nope does feel slightly defiant in its refusal to simply retread ground. It’s as different from Us as that sophomore effort was from Get Out, which might be the most exciting thing about Peele’s career so far: he’s dipping into different corners of his imagination each time out, musing upon a myriad of ideas and social concerns in a way that doesn’t feel forced or heavy-handed. He’s also grown more ambitious and complex in this regard: like Us, it’s open to a number of allegorical interpretations that accent its impeccable filmmaking, treating audiences to a rich tapestry of thrills and chills that ultimately question the very need for those thrills and chills. Ultimately, it distills and prods the very impulse of horror, a genre that allows us to gawk at terrible spectacle, to see what we don’t really want to see. But does that mean we can look away? Or that filmmakers shouldn't strive for that awful, impossible, and perfect shot? In a word: nope.
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