A sci-fi horror Western written and directed by a socially conscious African-American auteur in a post George Floyd world sounds like a lot. And it is.
But writer/director Jordan Peele – channeling Close Encounters, Signs, Tremors and North by Northwest — knows to ground the spectacular in his characters arcs, and keeps us hooked all the way through.
Nope concerns a horse ranch out in the California desert, run by grief-stricken OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) with help/hindrance from his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer).
The Haywoods train horses for the movies, but since the death of Pops (David Keith), OJ has had trouble keeping the family business going. Emerald has her own ideas on what to do with the ranch and the two are at loggerheads.
Pretty soon, the siblings discover they’re not alone out there in the wide-open gulch; they’re being watched by an interstellar stalker in the clouds.
Before getting to the good stuff Nope takes its time setting the table. Peele brings us inside OJ and Em’s dynamic, laying bare their admiration for, and resentment of, one another.
OJ envies Em’s charm and confidence but resents her caprice and unreliability. Em envies her brother’s determination and resolve but resents his stubbornness – and that their Pops respected OJ more than she.
Jaws in the Sky
OJ, Em and Angel get an unexpected boost from enigmatic film director Antlers Holst (surely the most ridiculous character name since Flipper Purify in Jungle Fever) who lends his skills to their efforts to catch an “impossible shot” of the killer ET.
B-movie King Michael Wincott plays him like Captain Quint on a no carb diet, exchanging Quint’s harpoon for a wind-up Boflex camera.
Speaking of Jaws, the relationship between OJ, Em, Angel and Antlers (seriously, that name) bring to mind the dynamic between Scheider, Shaw and Dreyfus aboard the Orca.
And that’s not a bad thing. Like Jaws, one of Nope’s great pleasures is the twitchy interplay between the unlikely band of heroes, cornered by a monster who outmatches them in size and strength, but not ingenuity.
Nope, in many respects, plays like Jaws in the sky.
Nope is the must-see movie of the summer. But not without its flaws.
The character of Angel, for example, falls perilously close to “underwritten sidekick” territory. Angel’s backstory amounts to being dumped by a girlfriend. Okay. Then he decides to give his life over to serving OJ and Em’s vision of capturing an alien on camera… because you know, the X Files. It’s kind of weak.
As for the logic behind the alien…. I’d love to discuss my notes here but if I did, I’d spoil everything. Let’s just say it’s one those movies you love when you watch it, but which makes you pause at the refrigerator late at night going “Wait a second…”
Hitchcock called those moments “refrigerator logic”.
These are quibbles compared to the problems presented by a sub-plot concerning Steven Yeun.
Yeun plays Ricky “Jupe” Park, who owns a neighboring theme park called Jupiter’s Claim.
In an inelegant bit of exposition, Jupe explains to OJ and Em the traumatic chimpanzee attack he experienced as a child actor on the set of his 90s sitcom, “Gordy’s Home”.
It’s a stand-out sequence, but that’s sorta the problem. It stands out from the rest of the movie.
Jupe – and his theme park – plays a role in the story later on… but it hinders more than helps.
I wish I could say more, but you know, spoilers.
Pitched on the Precipice of Violence
Nope is about the tension between humans and animals, how our inter-species “partnership” is nothing but a cruel, lopsided farce, forever pitched on the precipice of violence.
The movie makes us reflect on how gauzy the veil between our worlds. How easily humans are rended into bone and pulp when the lifeforms we underestimate decide “they’ve just had enough”, as Jupe explains.
Push too hard and eventually – inevitably – the oppressed will snap and bash the downpressor’s face in. It’s a powerful metaphor… and a timely warning.
This is territory Peele has staked out before. The deadly dance of oppressor/oppressed and spectator/spectacle runs through all of his movies, starting with Get Out.
With Nope, Peele returns to the themes of hunter and hunted, oppressed and oppressor, spectacle and spectator. If all this sounds like heady, podcasty stuff, it is, and I’m here for it.
With Nope, Peele outs himself (as if he needed to!) as a full-on cinema Stan. Like Tarantino, Peele revels in his joy of the movies, but also in the people who make them. One of Peele’s seeming ambitions is to shine a light on the brilliant Black folks who’ve made vital (and unheralded) contributions to American cinema since its very inception.
There’re signposts everywhere, if you look.
The dog-eared ballcap for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, worn by OJ.
The faded still for Buck and the Preacher, a 1972 Poitier/Belafonte movie about Black cowboys, which takes pride of place on Pops’ wall.
And, of course, Emerald (and Pops’) speech linking the Haywood family to the first ever stuntman/star in the history of moving pictures.
But unlike Tarantino, who indulges his obsessions maximally, making his taste supreme over considerations of story and character, Peele indulges his obsessions tastefully and with a minimum of discursion, weaving them elegantly into the fabric of his movies.
The choice of OJ’s ballcap, for example, is not only a shout-out to Lee’s Malcolm X, it’s also organic to the character.
OJ’s wardrobe is comprised mostly of movie swag, from Panavision t-shirts to a wonderfully distressed orange hoodie from the Scorpion King, destined to become an iconic piece of film wardrobe.
The Haywoods are movie people, after all.
Since Jaws, it’s become de rigeur for directors to hide their movie monsters until the last possible moment. And rightly so. The first thing I learned about screenwriting is “make ‘em wait”.
But famously, it was mechanical failure, not editorial choices, that forced Spielberg’s great white monster offstage for much of Jaws. The director had intended to show the shark early, and often, but was forced to cut away to hide how impossibly shitty it looked.
Hiding the shark became an unintended boon; it’s absence only deepened the movie’s pervasive sense of dread.
Peele takes a page from that care-worn playbook by teasing his monster for the first half, allowing us mere peaks, before giving us the goods later on. And does he ever deliver.
I won’t spoil anything, but the geometric beauty of Peele’s creation is Lovecraftian in the best sense of the word. You can feel your mind bending as you contemplate its alien contours.
Peele’s monster feels as impossible, and as inevitable, as death itself.
It’s the Beatles’ White Album, fuck off
When asked about the frequent criticisms of indulgence and over-length lobbed by critics and fans alike at The Beatles’ “White Album”, Paul McCartney gave it a tired shrug and a choice quip:
“It’s the Beatles’ White Album, fuck off.”
Like the Beatles’ divisive double, Nope is filled to bursting with ideas, themes, references and allusions.
Nope might collect as many detractors as fans, at first. But I predict that, in time, Nope will come to be appreciated as a singular masterpiece… just like the White Album.