After ‘Get Out’ and ‘Us’, Jordan Peele adds another bold, intelligent, eerie and supremely entertaining horror masterpiece to his resume.
August 10, 2022
Kudos to Jordan Peele for giving his third feature as a writer/director a haters-gonna-hate-hate-hate name: for anyone unimpressed with Nope, the response is right there. Kudos, too, to the Get Out and Us filmmaker for making his third bold, intelligent and supremely entertaining horror movie in a row — a reach-for-the-skies masterpiece that's ambitious and eerie, imaginative and expertly crafted, as savvy about cinema as it is about spectacle, and inspires the exact opposite term to its moniker. Reteaming with Peele after nabbing an Oscar nomination for Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya utters the titular word more than once in Nope. Exclaiming "yep" in your head each time he does is an instant reaction. Everything about the film evokes that same thrilled endorsement, but it comes particularly easily whenever Kaluuya's character surveys the wild and weird events around him. We say yay to his nays because we know we'd respond the same way if confronted by even half the chaos that Peele whooshes through the movie.
As played with near-silent weariness by the always-excellent Judas and the Black Messiah Oscar-winner, Haywood's Hollywood Horses trainer OJ doesn't just dismiss the strange thing in the heavens, though. He can't, even if he doesn't realise the full extent of what's happening when his father (Keith David, Love Life) suddenly slumps on his steed on an otherwise ordinary day. Six months later, OJ and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer, Lightyear) are trying to keep the family business running; he does the wrangling, she does the on-set safety spiels, which double as a primer on the Haywoods' lengthy links to the movie industry. The first moving images ever presented, by Eadweard Muybridge of a galloping horse in the 1800s, featured their great-great-great grandfather as the jockey, Emerald explains. His image was immortalised, but not his name — and, although she doesn't say it directly, that's a fate she isn't eager to share.
In fact, Emerald ends her patter by proclaiming that she's available for almost any Hollywood job that might come up. Unsurprisingly, OJ is horrified about the hustle. Her big chance is indeed tied to their ranch, but not in the way that Emerald initially realises either — because who'd predict that something would be lurking above the Haywoods' Agua Dulce property? Just as Get Out saw Peele reinterrogate the possession movie and Us did the same with doppelgängers, Nope goes all in on flying saucers. So, Emerald wants the kind of proof that only video footage can offer. She wants her "Oprah shot", as well as a hefty payday. Soon, the brother-sister duo are buying new surveillance equipment — which piques the interest of UFO-obsessed electronics salesman Angel Torres (Brandon Perea, The OA) — and also enlisting renowned cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott, Veni Vidi Vici) to capture the lucrative image.
Cue plenty of faces staring up in shock and wonder, as Steven Spielberg has made a mainstay of his films — and cue a movie that nods to Jaws as much as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Peele makes smartly and playfully cineliterate flicks, which aren't content to merely wink and nudge, but instead say "yep" themselves: yep to all the tropes and symbols that the comedian-turned-filmmaker can filter through his own lens, and his determination to unearth the reality of living in America today, just as he did when he was making some of this century's best skits on Key & Peele. Indeed, Nope is keenly aware of the lure and power of spectacle, especially the on-screen kind, which also echoes through in the picture's other pivotal character. Ricky 'Jupe' Park (Steven Yeun, Minari) isn't involved in the Haywoods' attempts to snap upwards, but the former child star runs a neighbouring theme park called Jupiter's Claim, which cashes in on his big hit role in a movie called Kid Sheriff. He's known for short-lived 90s sitcom Gordy's Home, too, starring opposite a chimpanzee, and moments of the show also pop up in Peele's film.
A creepy glimpse at Gordy's Home actually opens Nope, starting the feature with a cryptic teaser that couldn't be more potent. Menace hovering above, sprawling vistas and the clouds that pepper them, galloping horses, rampaging apes, waving skydancers, cheesy Wild West shows, predators versus prey, the quest for fame and its self-destructive toll, cashing in: that all earns Peele's attention, weaved together in one jaw-droppingly impressive and unnerving package. This is the filmmaker's clever and compelling stab at a monster movie as well, which applies in a variety of manners. Here's one that doesn't give too much away: the way that animals have been exploited for entertainment, coupled with humanity's pursuit of bigger and better spectacles no matter the consequences, has long proven an act of monstrousness to be battled.
Here's another: chasing visual thrills isn't innocent, a truth that resounds unshakeably in today's always-filming times. Nope is a pics-or-it-didn't-happen flick, too, and explores the price that people are willing to pay to keep getting those images. Perfect shots and the industry that relies upon them aren't without their cost, Peele posits — while also filling his frames with a sublimely surreal sci-fi-western vision lensed with rich detail by Hoyte Van Hoytema, Christopher Nolan's recent cinematographer (see: Tenet, Dunkirk and Interstellar). A movie can call attention to cinema's usually ignored ills and equally demand the utmost attention to its stunning array of sights, of course, and Nope is one such feature. Its sound design and score, courtesy of Johnnie Burn (Ammonite) and Michael Abels (Us, Get Out) respectively, are also both staggering and loaded, finding the ideal balance between haunting quiet and symphonic screaming.
Nope is many things. It's a reminder that Hollywood's historical approach to race — its blatant lack of diversity, and its willingness to erase the contributions of people of colour, to be accurate — has proven a monstrosity as well. It's an examination of the power of images, for better and for worse. It sees the dark side of courting celebrity as a supposed way of improving our lots in life. Nope takes Peele's The Twilight Zone fascination, after reviving and hosting the 2019–20 version, to its next level. It's also a cowboys-and-aliens flick, and it's as dazzling as a blockbuster that blends science fiction, western, comedy and horror can be. Nope is frequently a daylight nightmare, boasts this year's second-best use of the wide blue yonder after Top Gun: Maverick, and is so terrifying in one barn-set scene that chills follow. Throw in that exceptional cast, including the pitch-perfect chalk-and-cheese double act that springs from Kaluuya's subtlety and Palmer's energy, and it's a downright marvel, as well as another Peele winner. The yeps keep coming — and yep, you'll never look at the clouds the same way afterwards.
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