Director: Jordan Peele
Writers: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea
Runtime: 130 mins
MPAA Rating: R
Jordan Peele self-describes the genre of his first two films Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) as “social-thriller”. In both cases, I am keen on the “thriller” component and considerably less so on the “social” aspect. Going into Nope, I was concerned that Peele had constructed an artificial ceiling to the quality of his work due to his extremely heavy-handed social commentary which necessarily mires his work to the present social context and hampers transcendent story-telling. Fortunately, Nope is a lot less concerned with its socializing and stays honed in on delivering the thrills.
Situated in a picturesque valley in Agua Dulce north of Los Angeles, Haywood’s Hollywood Horses has been supplying horses to film and television productions for multiple generations. The Haywoods even allege ancestry with the very first stuntman in motion picture history. After the curious death of his father Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) hit by falling debris from an aircraft, Otis Jr. or “OJ” (Daniel Kaluuya) struggles to find work for himself and his horses in Hollywood while his sister Emerald or “Em” (Keke Palmer) feels increasingly disconnected from the family’s legacy. Financial offers for individual horses and even the entire ranch from local theme park owner and former child sitcom star Jupe (Steven Yeun) become more tempting. All the while strange happenings occur frequently at the ranch: spooked horses, power fluctuations, and odd cloud cover. All signs point to a mysterious and hostile aerial phenomenon haunting the area. Seeing a chance to give the public a spectacle and turn a profit, OJ and Em set about trying to capture this phenomenon on camera for all to see.
Nope is particularly arresting when it hits its stride in the third act. By this point, the story has clearly laid out creature mechanics, a simple goal the characters need to achieve, and life-or-death stakes. During these latter stages, Nope does not stray far from the film-opening scriptural abstract from Nahum 3:6 about being pelted with filth and becoming a spectacle. Though the last half of the movie is certainly far more enthralling than the first half, the story is never particularly dull.
It may sound strange, but Peele’s UFO film is his most serious and grounded one yet. At this point in his writing-directing career, Peele’s main characters feel much more organic and less like they are from a sketch comedy. His mixture of horror and comedy appeared to have a built-in limiting factor as one of the genres ends up inevitably deflating the other at some point in his first two films. This issue is absent in Nope as the levity, while still present in smaller doses, is never inappropriately interjected into tense situations. That is not to say this film is overbearingly serious just that despite much of this film being ridiculous in conception, it restrains itself from ever going too far over-the-top. Though his foreshadowing still lacks any sort of subtlety, Peele knows exactly what he wants communicated audibly and visually within the frame so that there is abundance of clarity about why things happen the way they do later on. The visual presentation is modest yet polished and memorable, some highlights being Hoyt van Hoytema’s pristine landscape cinematography and the engaging shot selection for the sky-watching sequences.
The musculoskeletal structure of this film is a genuinely thrilling creature feature. The skin is the aesthetically pleasing and creative production design. However, the screenplay disproportionately distributes the subcutaneous fat in between resulting in an inelegant final form. Horse ranchers struggling to stay afloat is a wonderfully simple setup that stirs empathy within the audience and motivates the rising action of the story. You understand without extensive exposition that OJ and Em are survivors. Conversely, Jupe, a comparatively minor character, gets extensive development through this elaborate and horrific formative childhood trauma that defines him in his adult life. The amount of runtime dedicated to Jupe’s background is completely incommensurate with how much bearing his character has on the final direction the story takes. His character’s constitution and motivations are actually intriguing but in the context of the entire movie, the excess of development feels overwrought relative to his plot importance. The remaining two characters of note are Angel (Brandon Perea), the overly inquisitive young IT guy who gets sucked into the intrigue setting up cameras for the Haywoods, and an eccentric cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) who is enamored with capturing the “impossible shot” in nature. Both serve functional roles within the plot when they are not the dedicated comic relief but ultimately feel underdeveloped. Considering the entire dramatis personae, it seems as though an arbitrary amount of effort was put into constructing each character, and, consequently, the final screenplay comes together with awkward proportions.
Flaws aside, the central theme of existence being tied to spectacle is thought-provoking. How real and relevant is something that nobody can see? OJ and Keke trying to prove the existence of a well-camouflaged aerial entity to the world at large is the obvious germination for this idea, but upon closer examination, it runs deeply throughout the movie. For example, the moment the ranch is disconnected from the screens of Hollywood, the real struggle for survival begins for OJ. Broader social insights can be drawn thinking along these lines; the social commentary is a lot less crude than Peele’s prior efforts and elegantly woven into the film’s fabric.
Much like its main characters, Nope recognizes its own lineage within cinema as a UFO flick. It leans on ideas presented before in films such as Tremors and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a launchpad and rockets off from there to give the audience a wild and original ride. Nope is definitely Jordan Peele’s strongest cinematic effort to date poking at a more transcendent theme and should have more staying power in my memory than his past efforts. If you enjoy an equal blend of mystery, horror, and action with a mature bent, Nope is definitely going to be up your alley.
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