The best part of writer-director Jordan Peele’s atmospheric science-fiction extravaganza Nope is the beginning, an introduction—after a brief prologue—to a world unlike any most of us have ever seen, and a character rich with possibility. In that early sequence, we meet Daniel Kaluuya’s OJ Haywood, part of a family who has run a working ranch for generations. We’ll later learn that the business, Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, provides beautiful, well-trained horses for movies and television, and for years it’s been a lucrative operation for OJ’s father, Otis (Keith David), as it was for his father and grandfather before him. Otis, seated astride Ghost the white horse, is thrown into chaos very early on in the movie. Just before it does, OJ notes the gathering of some strange clouds, and he hears a weird howling in the sky—given Peele’s penchant for biblical references and imagery, it could be the sound of apocalyptic horses freed from their riders and out for vengeance.
OJ is unaware that Otis’ father had been attacked by an invisble force the next moment. A minute ago Otis had been crowing over how well the business had been doing, and now he’s slumped in the saddle. OJ rushes Otis into the hospital but to no avail. He later stares at the tiny projectile which killed or contributed to his death. It was cleaned up, and placed in a baggie. This scene shows, beautifully, how a life can change in a minute, and sets up a challenge rich with dramatic possibilities: OJ now has to take the reins of a successful family business—a Black-owned one at that, with a reputation to uphold—and as Kaluuya plays him, dutiful and sensitive but a bit reticent about facing the world, we can see he’s not sure he’s up to the task.
Nope Could have been everything that, It also contains elements of horror sci-fi, and is about the same. The early promises of Nope doesn’t lead where you expect. It leads you to many unexpected places which are oddly more satisfying. Each scene reveals more about OJ and the things it sees in space, as well as what it desires from humans. There are other players in this drama: OJ’s outgoing magnetic sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), is better at facing the public than he is, but she wants nothing to do with the business. (OJ’s work demands that he know how to handle animals and deal with the human egos of show business, and it’s the latter that throws him.)
Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) is a former child star who runs a schlocky Old-West tourist attraction near the Haywood ranch, but who has designs on an even bigger enterprise. He’s also scarred, it appears, from a childhood run-in with a murderous chimpanzee, a story Peele hints at in Nope’s prologue and fleshes out later in a terrifying flashback. Others are stumbling around in the margins. NopeAngel (Brandon Perea), an employee at a Best Buy type store in his locality, and Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a quirky cinematographer who is known for being cocky. At one point we’re treated to some grainy footage he’s obsessed with, which appears to show a boa constrictor getting ready to devour a tiger. This is the movie’s way of proving he’s a man of sick tastes, but it’s also an image we can’t unsee.
Steven Yeun in Nope
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And then there’s the mysterious thing in the sky that no one is supposed to talk about until after they’ve seen the movie. It’s a thing with a hole. There are certain things it doesn’t like. It follows no rules but its own, until Otis learns that maybe it will follow some rules, and how much you think those rules make sense—even in the highly subjective world of science fiction—will dictate how much pleasure you get out of Nope.
Because NopeAlthough it’s entertaining to watch, the concepts behind this film are not very well understood. Peele can’t take just one or two interesting ideas and follow their trail of complexity. He likes to layer ideas into lofty multitextured quilts—the problem is that his most compelling perceptions are often dropped only to be obscured by murkier ones. Although he has a talent for creating stunning visuals, he tends to think first before trying to connect ideas with them. He decides that the inflatable dancers outside of used car lots are cool, but they don’t really move the plot along visually.
Contrary to popular opinion, horror movies don’t necessarily have to be about anything: we’ve all read enough treatises on how 1950s horror films were really all about fear of the Communist threat to last a lifetime. Sometimes the greatest horror films don’t even focus on our inner fears. Peele’s movies don’t You can find it here to be about anything—it could be enough that their imagery is often haunting, and inventive, by itself. One thing’s for sure: he’s comfortable with grand orchestrations, and he enjoys filling the expanse of a movie screen. Beautiful images are abundant in Nope,Peele even makes us wait for one: Kaluuya’s sight on Kaluuya riding on horseback, an imposing actor. A glorious Elmer Bernstein-inflected music swirls around him. As dramatic as a rising desert sun. Peele is a huge fan of all kinds of movies. It appears that he also loves movies.
Daniel Kaluuya, OJ at NOPE
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However, Nope—as in his last feature, the otherworldly horror film Use—he makes us believe he’s working up to some complex and powerful thesis only to switch gears every 20 minutes or so and jerk us in another direction. We are left wondering at the end what all this means. This is The wonderingThis is what it’s supposed to mean. Peele, it seems, is one of those “It means what you think it means” filmmakers, which delights some audiences but comes off as a copout for viewers who want It is fascinating to understand what filmmakers think, as they are likely more intriguing than any thoughts we can come up with. Peele’s best film, his debut Move onThis was both an entertaining horror tale and a thought-provoking reflection about whether we will ever see a post-racial society. (For now, the grim answer is “no”.) Yet, elements of his 2019 Use They were genius. Who else could have thought of using semi-zombies that are not in sunlight as metaphorical elements to a parable on class complacency.
But Peele’s ideas and aims became more scattershot as that film wore on, and the same is true of Nope. Maybe that is the point. Nope—or one of its points—is that it’s folly to believe we can control nature, especially the nature of other galaxies. The comment could also reflect our current desire to get more stimulation online and elsewhere. Or maybe the main point is just to walk out thinking “Wow!” But if you’re left un-wowed, you’re not alone. Nope means what you think it means, but there’s no shame in wishing it could mean just a little more.
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