Director: Jordan Peele
Stars: Keke Palmer, Daniel Kaluuya, Steven Yeun
Jordan Peele’s Nope is about looking. Wanting to look. Wanting to see. And also – and importantly – wanting to share that experience. Wanting to show.
Black ranchers and Hollywood horse trainers the Haywood family have this in their heritage. OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald’s (Keke Palmer) great, great (great?) grandfather was the jockey riding the horse in the first assemblage of footage counted as a movie; an historic instance of showing one’s self that the siblings carry with them as a badge of honour in their day-to-day. Emerald is the more outgoing and expressive in this regard. OJ is quieter, more cautious; more attuned to spending time with skittish animals. He prefers a patient and guarded stance.
A recent family tragedy – under exceedingly mysterious circumstances no less – hangs heavy in the air as the two of them take the reigns of the family business out in the dusty Californian hills. Their ranch has, of late, been abutted by a new enterprise shepherded by former child-star Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun), whose own traumatic history on a television show he now uncomfortably peddles as part of his grown-up persona. Early stretches of Nope find OJ trying to open a dialogue to buy a number of horses back from Jupe.
More so than either Get Out or even Us, Peele plays coy with the meat of his movie. This is in-keeping with a long and significant promotional campaign, which has been suggestive of a UFO angle without fully committing to any stark, definitive visuals. In the first hour especially, Peele tends to employ abrupt time cuts to keep us from seeing. Information is deliberately left out of the picture. He leaves us seeking. He knows we want to look, want to see.
By the end of the picture this desire of ours will be sated – and then some – but the cagy unspooling of this narrative finds Peele building further on his existing reputation for showmanship. One senses his kinship with Jupe, holding court in the middle of a rodeo corral, adorned in a suit embroidered with alien heads. Peele is our compère. With two smash hit movies under his belt (one of them held aloft as a zeitgeist entity no less), Nope is brazenly confident and wantonly strange. The product of a creative mind emboldened by his successes to gift an audience something sneakier; more idiosyncratic.
A long way of saying Nope is a distinct and distinctly strange mainstream offering, and all the better for it.
Before it gets to showing, Nope makes hay out of sharing. Having realised that they might just have the drop on a world-exclusive discovery, OJ and Emerald’s first instinct is to capture it on film. In part so that they can become rich and famous for having done so, but also so that they can be the ones to share it. Here it feels as though Peele is enquiring – with appreciable fondness – into the very human desire to connect with others through discovery. Entrepreneurial spirit mixed with the simpler almost childlike sense of giddiness that comes with having something to show.
In our modern world, of course, this often means capturing on film. Nope is littered with all sorts of examples of how we document and share footage. VHS tape, (giant) Polaroids, digital surveillance… all these and more are methods of capturing and replaying. And these ideas seem of paramount importance to all of the main characters, each of whom has some deep psychological connection to the documented world. Be that via state-of-the-art home movie making, or the rehearsed restaging of an event, over and over, like a rerun in living colour.
Imagine if Jaws had been about sharing a video of the shark as opposed to killing it, and you’re some way toward the cultural sense of obsession that Nope pries into.
Is it a UFO movie then? Yeah, and, of course, Nope. Peele’s film has it’s hat-tips and cultural nods (including a wry updating of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam into TV’s first exploding fist-bump), but it is also thrillingly original; coming at a well-worn trope of sci-fi hokum from a fresh perspective. Turning something you know into something you don’t.
This sense of unbridled creativity powers Nope through it’s adventurous second hour. Finally revealed, Peele’s ‘monster’ is one of the more unique to grace cinema screens in some time. This extends beyond it’s visuals. Beyond what’s seen. What’s shown. Here what’s heard is also daring and distinct. The sound editing and mixing on this film is a feat all by itself. If Nope falls somewhere between sci-fi and horror, it’s audio landscape tilts further toward the latter, creating a clipped, groaning, screaming miasma that’s as scary and unknowable as getting lost in a cloud. For the first time since perhaps Midsommar it feels as though a mainstream release is genuinely tugging our hand into wildly unpredictable territory. Again, mostly in broad daylight.
Like that film Nope is an apprehensive delight. It stammers from achieving the immediacy of Get Out or Us, but its often quiet, squirrelly nature invites further study and – appropriately – the desire to revisit. To see again. And maybe also to show others.
There’s also something to be said for the sense of oppression at the heart of Nope. Before a collective sense of industry is attained, these characters feel the weight of always having to look over one’s shoulder. More specifically and meaningfully, always having to look up. There’s a strong and resonant through-line here, a state of constant alertness that ties into the Black experience in America. And not just Black. Yeun’s presence in the narrative opens up Peele’s comment to other minorities as well. Peele’s movie has drawn favourable comparisons to Spielberg, but I feel a lot more of John Carpenter’s anti-authoritarian sentiments in its passages. The sense of empowered activism in the third act, then, feels quite triumphant.
In Nope, a long hard stare back – a look – means the world.