Jordan Peele has become an institution so quickly that it’s easy to overlook what an anomaly he is. A Black man working in genre filmmaking is rare enough, but to occupy the upper echelon of the industry both critically and commercially is downright astounding. With two twisty horror films and his fingers in the recent Twilight Zone reboot, though, that quick rise and singular status comes with a dangerous box, one he is all too ready to expose and blow open with Nope.
His previous films, Get Out and Us, were twisty pieces of horror, heavy on commentary about being Black in America, which has put him in a precarious position where the majority white critics community sometimes treat him like the chosen person of color bringing “unique insights” to the table. As with anyone from a minority group, though, he is not beholden to explain anything to the majority, and he sure as hell isn’t the token some, consciously or unconsciously, treat him as.
Which is what makes Nope such an interesting film to chew on, because while the story may seem like a rather straightforward monster flick, those monsters always stand for something. The accouterments make Nope’s metaphor pretty clear, and those box people won’t like what it has to say.
The film takes place on a tucked away ranch where OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) struggles to keep the family business going after his father passes away. They have ties, as his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) explains, to the earliest filmed images, and they maintain a tangential relationship to the industry by providing trained horses for television shows and films.
But that isn’t where the film starts. Instead, it opens with a bloody and chaotic scene on a soundstage where a chimpanzee, all dressed up like a human, quizzically surveys the bodies strewn about him. You won’t get a full story of what happened for a while, but the mood is set and its themes are established by the lifeless foot center stage: Peele is addressing his own industry, the churn and chew that lifts people up as quickly as it spits them out, with no regard for how they come out on the other end.
The chimp is not the monster of the movie. No, he’s a victim as well, as are the horses on OJ’s ranch and the slightly off owner of a nearby western attraction, himself a child actor who was on set with the poor chimp. The wide ranging victims are the first way Peele breaks down the box forming around him: Nope still has a sharp critique at its center, but its target has shifted.
The other big shift is in genre, because despite what the marketing might tell you, Nope only flirts with horror. It plays more as a science fiction thriller, with the monster lurking around all these fringe players in the entertainment industry being a UFO hovering in the clouds. There’s only a brief delay in this reveal; the suspense comes not from whether there’s something lurking above them but from what to do about it, which allows Peele to swing freely with his comedy and his grandeur.
Few filmmakers have the eye Peele brings, both in individual framing and in sequencing a simple but anxiety-ridden scenario. He understands that an overhang will shatter all sense of security when you remind the audience of what might be behind it, and he has a cheeky sense for how long to withhold what we know is coming. These may seem like fundamentals, but mastery of these storytelling elements is what made Spielberg into Spielberg, a name Nope brings to mind more for rising to his level of perfectly presented thrills and awe as for the plot and character similarities to Spielberg’s own legendary entries in the science fiction and monster movie canons.
Where the film falters, and only mildly, is in tying its ideas together. Instead of coalescing into the mysterious object in the sky they hover around it, never fully connecting to the fear and awe it inspires. Certain themes aren’t fully fleshed out, and there’s a sense from this and the prominent credit for a one-scene turn by Barbie Ferreira that quite a bit was left on the cutting room floor.
But what fear and awe you still get from Nope, which unfurls into something far greater than most monster movies even attempt. Its UFO is not simply something to run from but something to marvel at, to cower from, and to conquer, if you have the courage. In this way its central theme does tie to it directly: the entertainment industry contains great cruelty and stunning beauty, and if you can survive it, you might just have the chance to reshape it.
Release: available now in theaters
Director: Jordan Peele
Writers: Jordan Peele
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, and Steven Yeun