Nope Review – Yeah, Nah

Writer/director Jordan Peele made one of the best horror films of the 21st century with his excoriating debut Get Out in 2017. Fearless and uncompromising in its vision to create a genre driven social commentary about the Black experience in America, Get Out was an exercise in perfectly pitching terror within the mundane and exploring how white America continues to feed on Black trauma. A film that burst out of the gate fully formed, it signalled that former comedian, Peele was a talent to be reckoned with. Peele’s second film Us (2019) lacked the narrative cohesion of Get Out but was anchored by some stellar set pieces and an astonishing double performance by Lupito Nyong’o. Peele’s wildly anticipated third feature, Nope swings for the fences in a manner akin to Us, and like the aforementioned film lacks narrative cohesion and is grounded in some incredible set pieces; but is that enough to take the film over the like? The answer isn’t clear – for some Nope will be their film of the year, for others it will be a bloated and confusing mess that never manages to put together everything it sets up. One thing is evident, Peele isn’t interested in being a safe filmmaker and his ambition at least is to be commended.

The film begins with a biblical quote: “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.” (Nehum: 3:6). Peele’s thesis is contained within the quote. Nope is about the power and cost of spectacle. It begins with what appears to be a freak accident on a horse ranch in a sparsely populated California valley. Otis Haywood Snr. (Keith David) dies from a coin lodging itself in his skull that with other objects mysteriously fell from the sky. His son Otis Jr. or OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) is left to run the failing ranch on his own. His younger sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer) has moved on to try to hustle her way into fame through one of her many side gigs as a singer/actor/stunt person/caterer.

On a botched commercial shoot the siblings are reunited. OJ is trying to take the place of his father who rented out horses for Hollywood films. The problem is that OJ is far from a showman; he’s taciturn to the point of silence. He’s supposed to give a rousing introduction to his business but is rightly more concerned with the careless attitude of the crew around the horse. Enter Emerald, who is a vivacious presence and who takes the spotlight by talking about Eadweard Muybridge’s chronophotographic work ‘Horse in Motion’ and the Black rider of the animal who has been lost to history. That rider, Emerald claims, was her ancestor and the Haywood family have Hollywood in their DNA.

The commercial is a canny set up that not only highlights the disparate personalities of the siblings but also offers commentary about how Black people have been overlooked in the entertainment industry for as long as it has existed. It also features a clever piece of microaggression from a white character when she asks OJ “Your name is OJ?” – clearly proving that Black men will be tainted by the behaviour of other Black men in the eyes of the white community. Peele also places an ingenious cameo by Osgood ‘Oz’ Perkins as the director of the commercial.

After the shoot goes awry and OJ’s horse is replaced by a GCI stand in he travels to Jupiter’s Claim, a weird theme park run by former child star Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) to sell him one of his horses. Jupe is haunted by a tragedy that occurred on set in his 1990’s sitcom ‘Gordy’s Home’ where the chimp playing Gordy (motion capped by Terry Notary in the film but a real chimp in the show) becomes violent and mutilates most of the cast with the exception of the young Jupe (Jacob Kim). In terms of visceral horror Peele’s recreation of the events is disquieting and one of the better set pieces in the film. The horror continues for Jupe as he is financially forced to relive his trauma that day for curious spectators who long to experience the sensation of being around the props and photographs of ‘Gordy’s Home’ and to hear Jupe tell his story. Yeun gives an admirable performance as a man haunted by a terrible event who has to keep up the façade that ‘the show will go on’ despite what it is costing him psychologically.

Back at the ranch OJ and Emerald realise that something is deeply amiss. The horses are fretting, the power goes out, and OJ sees something in the sky. Convinced by Emerald that capturing images of the UFO will lead to the end of their financial woes and even an Oprah level of fame the duo decide to buy camera equipment which leads to the inclusion of tech geek and UFO obsessive Angel Torres (a wonderfully funny Brandon Perea) to their Scooby Doo gang. Eventually they realise that whatever is in the sky is emitting an EMP and call on renowned cinematographer, Antlers Host (Michael Wincott) to try to capture the perfect shot.

To go more deeply into the plot would require revealing spoilers which would ruin the experience of the film for many. Suffice to say whatever is in the sky is not a standard UFO and because Nope is a Peele film it is something more symbolic. The film is littered with symbols, often to the point of over saturation. Peele throws everything at the wall and some of it sticks but even having all the toys in the sandbox to play with, something feels hollow at the centre of the movie.

Peele knows how to ratchet suspense and does so with alacrity but there aren’t as many moments of payoff that the film requires. As a commentary about searching for perfection Wincott’s Antlers Host is the best example of the mania to capture something no other has done before. An unnamed character, a reporter for what is assumed by Emerald to be TMZ, stands in as the avatar for the contemporary need to capture every moment of life on a camera. Even when he is on the ground dying all he can concentrate on is OJ finding his camera and filming him.

Visually the film is as outstanding as you’d hope. Lensed by legendary cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (mostly known for his work with Christopher Nolan) Nope is genuinely beautiful even in its moments of ugliness. The production design and art direction by Ruth De Jong and Samantha Englander respectively is impeccable. The music by regular Peele collaborator Michael Abels is a wonderful homage to thrillers of yore and the licensed music is terrific (who knew Corey Hart’s ‘Sunglasses at Night’ could be so creepy?). With all of the accomplished work contributing to the film, why isn’t it a remarkable piece of genre cinema?

The answer comes down to Peele doing too much and too little simultaneously. Narrative threads are picked up and discarded and there are so many of them that even the most attentive viewer will find themselves if not confused, certainly a bit exhausted by them. There is also the problem with the credibility of the screenplay – of course it is a science fiction/horror excursion so suspension of disbelief is one of the first things the audience will do; yet it lacks its own internal logic, and many will be asking questions about what happens which Peele’s script has no intention of answering. Ideas that should be compelling range from enigmatic to confounding and Peele wants it that way.

Daniel Kaluuya is a brilliant actor but as OJ he almost sleepwalks through the role. His turn to action seems deeply out of place with the character traits that Peele has set up. Keke Palmer carries so much of the film with her animated Emerald. The arc of the siblings reuniting to become a family again is largely effective, but Peele has so much going on that it might not be as impactful as it should be. Steven Yeun’s Jupe is fascinating but sidelined too quickly so Peele can ram home his point about the dangers of spectacle.

Nope is by all metrics a blockbuster film but it isn’t built for a general audience. It’s admirable in a way that Peele refuses to compromise and make the movie more accessible, there is certainly a bravery to committing to such an outré piece of cinema. However, Nope never reaches the heights of its ambition. In terms of pure spectacle the uneven pacing dilutes the experience. Nope needs its parts to cohere and they don’t but there are some truly ingenious set pieces that are hard to shake. It isn’t possible to blanketly say nope to Nope, but on the same token it is difficult to resoundingly say yep to it either.

Director: Jordan Peele

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea

Writer: Jordan Peele

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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