Nope hits theaters on July 22, 2022.
Equal parts comedic knee-slapper and white-knuckle thriller, Jordan Peele’s Nope is a farcical love letter to Hollywood, and to the American dream. It is, at once, a no-frills version of exactly what its trailers are selling — a film about objects falling from the sky, and characters catching glimpses of something sinister in the clouds — and yet, it’s entirely unlike its straightforward marketing, which provides hints of plot, but skillfully disguises its tone. It’s wonderfully spoiler-proof (though you won’t find major details here that haven’t already been revealed), in part because it’s completely unlike Peele’s previous work, both thematically, and in the evolution of his craft.
Nope follows Hollywood horse-wranglers Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald, or “Em” (Keke Palmer), who, after the violent death of their father Otis Sr. (Keith David) under mysterious circumstances, find contrasting ways to move forward. For OJ, who witnessed Otis Sr.’s death up close, it’s a matter of silently and diligently keeping the business afloat. For the more outgoing Em, it’s about leaving their ranch behind and marketing her various talents to anyone who’ll listen — including OJ’s cowboy hat-sporting business partner Ricky Park, aka “Jupe” (Steven Yeun), an actor-turned-entrepreneur who runs a Western-themed carnival. Though, as a former child star, he has some (highly publicized) traumas of his own.
Trauma is, perhaps, the one thing Nope has in common with Peele’s blazing race-horror debut, Get Out (in which Kaluuya’s character, Chris, is inhibited by his mother’s death), and with his class-thriller follow up Us (which reveals both the physical and emotional scars of its “tethered” doppelgangers), but this time around, the theme is at once more central and more satirical. Compared to Peele’s other work, Nope has a much deeper reading of the ways OJ, Em, and Jupe carry their burdens — often told through lingering, piercing close ups of each actor’s nuanced performance — and yet, the way their suffering factors into the story is shockingly cavalier (though not without reason).
As much as Nope is about characters threatened by what could be a flying saucer, it’s also about what drives their responses to events like mysterious power failures, and an assortment of mundane objects raining down from above. Whether or not they’re in it to save the world, or even to survive, what they ultimately want is to capture the spectacle of this UFO, repackage it, and sell it for a fortune, as middlemen in a long lineage of entertainment. Which, of course, is not to suggest that Peele takes a casual approach to the material — it’s one of the most genuinely edge-of-your-seat summer movies in quite some time — but it also can’t help but read like a introspection of Peele’s own hand in modern Hollywood, and its Black Horror resurgence.
For one thing, Peele has the gall to kick things off with a Bible verse (Nahum 3:6) that immediately invites subtextual scrutiny, but turns out to be hysterically, grossly literal, before deploying the image of George Washington on a $1 coin in a particularly grisly context. What exactly is Peele saying here? Knowledge of his previous films might imply an invocation of genocide or slavery, America’s original sins, and while those readings are seldom far from the movie’s lips, it’s the melding of American history with monetary value — the most superficial reading of them all — that ends up the most important. Get Out and Us have already been echoed and imitated poorly, even in their short lives (Antebellum, Cracka, Karen, Them; the list goes on), so it stands to reason that Peele might, on some level, question what his images even mean, and what his place might be within cinematic history.
That history is front and center from the moment we meet Em and OJ, who introduce themselves as movie royalty. Some of the very first moving images, captured by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878, were of a Black jockey riding a horse, and while Muybridge is world renowned, and even the horse’s name is well-documented (Annie G), the rider remains anonymous to this day. Through fantasy, Peele seemingly course-corrects this deep-seated erasure of Blackness in Hollywood history: the Haywood siblings claim to be the descendants of this jockey, a Bahamian man, and their continued horse-training in an age of CGI is, in part, a means to keep the jockey’s and their father’s legacies alive — or at least, that’s how they sell it. The text gives us no reason to doubt their claims (it’s a background detail for the most part), and they themselves seem to believe it. But the more the film unfolds, the more the question of its veracity seems to creep in through the corners of the frame, given what Nope ends up being about.
On one hand, it’s an ode to filmmaking, and to the power of moving pictures. Em and OJ know people won’t believe what they’ve seen in the sky unless they capture convincing images, for which they enlist the help of both mousey tech retail cashier Angel (Brandon Perea), who helps them set up security cameras, and raspy-voiced documentarian Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who’s introduced working on a Steenbeck editing machine, and who speaks in riddles and platitudes, but is obsessively dedicated to capturing the perfect shot on celluloid. Nope’s affinity for analog technology is something cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar) pours into every IMAX frame, imbuing it with a sense of warmth, texture, and tactility. However, this affinity is something the film also turns its lens back towards, in moments that ride a fine line between parody and introspection (at one point, it seems as if the fate of the world rests on Holst’s ability to hand-crank an enormous IMAX camera, a bizarre analog fantasy that no celluloid aficionado actually has, which makes it all the more uproarious). It seems to ask: what, or who, is this love for cinema, and of crafting images, actually in service of?
Because, on the other hand, Nope is about the carny spirit of American myths, and the American dream. And what’s more American than Hollywood?
Nope: Character Posters for Jordan Peele’s New Horror Movie
Given the siblings’ industry involvement, Nope abounds with logos and terminology that play as in-jokes about movie making — not to mention, as rallying cries when our protagonists concoct increasingly detailed plans to capture the UFO on film. However, their grand scheme also involves the numerous tube men seen in the marketing (or sky dancers, or Tall Boys), an ostentatious hallmark of car salesmanship. At every turn, even their most sincere efforts have slimy undertones, albeit with deeply relatable motives. Will warning the world of this threat have an altruistic outcome? Sure. Will it also make them rich and famous? Absolutely. They’re heroes with a huckster spirit, as much cowboys as they are climbers. Even the way Jupe retells his real-life horrors comes disguised in layers of pop culture commodification (the nature of his story is best discovered for yourself, but let’s just say Terry Notary is in the opening credits for a reason; if you know, you know).
And yet, stylistically, Nope is hardly a dressing down of studio filmmaking. If anything, it’s a testament to Peele’s craftsmanship, that he can both project an uneasiness (if not an all-out disdain) for the blockbuster as a concept — images, stories and spectacles as a money-first endeavor — while also making one of the most purely entertaining pieces of popcorn cinema this year. It’s a film that has its cake, eats it too, and absolutely deserves to, ramping up the tension with every subsequent scene (thanks in no small part to Michael Abels unsettling score).
Peele’s sounds and silences (courtesy of designer Johnnie Burn) are where most of his chills are conjured, thanks to a rumbling aural landscape that demands a big-screen experience. And while he deploys horror’s traditional tools, like dark corners and jagged music, for most of his fake-out scares, he trades in the cinematic language of the Western for his most genuinely unnerving moments. Wide open spaces feel menacing, because of how and where he stages his actors. Mountains, rather than containing memories, hide something monstrous, and the wistful nostalgia of on-screen galloping is something he immediately robs of its beauty and power, given the UFO’s seeming affinity for beaming horses into its hull (the design of this apparent saucer is, initially, shocking in its simplicity, but by the end, you may as well call it “Biblically accurate”).
At times, Nope is a Spielbergian nightmare, not only for the occasional sci-fi conceptions that harken back to The Beard’s work, but because of the way Peele captures people at their most awestruck — albeit in a wackadoo context, where it becomes clear just how tongue-in-cheek his take on an alien invasion movie really is. He also has a nod towards E.T. that ends up hilariously shocking, during a chilling and ingeniously staged Jupe flashback that seems poised to tie into the film’s conspiracy musings, but turns out to be both hollow in its plotting, yet absolutely foundational from a character standpoint.
Few in mainstream Hollywood are working on Peele’s level from a purely craft perspective, the biggest testament to which is the way he still manages to slow down amidst the satirical bombast and connect you to his characters, often through the way he directs and captures performance. Palmer, who’s shouldered with balancing dire stakes and a casual façade, turns Em into a rich and multifaceted career-hopper through body language alone, vaping and hitting on women as a shield for whatever emotions she refuses to face (in a climactic moment, when she eventually stares down her lingering fears of loss, the result is cinematic gold). Yeun, one of America’s underrated gems, has rarely been more hauntingly enrapturing, especially with so little screen time. And Kaluuya, Peele’s not-so-secret weapon in Get Out, returns once more to guide us on an entire rendezvous using reaction shots alone. It’s his lingua franca this time, given OJ’s commitment to steering silently out of everyone’s way, muttering more than he projects, and looking steadfastly ahead when most horror characters would be peeking over their shoulder (it’s the epitome of an “acting is reacting” performance, given how inward Kaluuya turns).
What makes Nope work as both satire and sincere blockbuster is how downright persuasive it is, emotionally and aesthetically. It makes you cheer not for a rousing stand against oblivion, but for the gaudy pursuit of money and stardom, even at the cost of your own traumas. Beyond a point, the eye in the sky may as well be a hovering manifestation of lifelong pain, but rather than defeating it, Peele’s characters do what most in the modern American gig economy have been conditioned to with their every trait and experience. They find a way to monetize it, and the result is a f***ing rollercoaster.
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