Nope

nope

With Nope, his third feature as writer-director, Jordan Peele solidifies his status as one of the most exciting new American filmmakers now working. He has a steady command of mood and suspense, and he knows enough to let subtext be subtext and not overexplain it. I can’t tell you how relieved I was, for instance, that the sad and terrifying story of Gordy the trained chimp, which opens Nope on an ominous note, doesn’t turn out to be connected in some way with the larger plot.¹ Yes, we meet a survivor of the incident as a grown man, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), but Peele has the sense to let the event linger and fester in the back of our minds while we watch what certainly appears to be an alien-invasion thriller.

Ultimately, Nope shakes out as a comment on Hollywood and how people are wasted, swallowed up, disfigured in the name of entertainment. But it’s also foreboding and spooky as hell, like Peele’s previous thrillers, Get Out and Us. The movie is set mostly on a ranch dedicated to training horses for use in TV, movies and commercials. The ranch is owned and run by OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), who takes care of the horses and occasionally sells one to Jupe, who now manages a Western theme park and low-key ghoulishly dines out on his traumatic experience with Gordy. 

All of this is background, and it’s a slow but compelling burn until we recognize what’s going on: a creature of unknown origin is feeding off of local life. I was reminded of Stephen King thinking about him and Louis L’Amour having separate ideas while standing at the edge of a pond: “His story might be about water rights in a dry season, my story would more likely be about some dreadful, hulking thing rising out of the still waters to carry off sheep . . . and horses . . . and finally people.” It’s OJ’s vibrant sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) who figures out what should be done about it: get it on video and get rich. For a while, nobody else comes up with any more productive notions, like how to kill it, because it takes a while to learn what might kill it.

There is one beautifully simple yet brilliant callback: the impact of a balloon popping. It’s a shame one particular character isn’t there to appreciate the second instance. Nope goes on a bit, slightly north of two hours, but is never boring, not with the amount of character and world-building detail Peele packs into the story. The people in the movie are written as utterly unique, including a Fry’s tech clerk (Brandon Perea) who helps set up surveillance and a grizzled cinematographer (Michael Wincott, with his usual gravelly growl) who rises to the challenge of capturing the thing on real film at magic hour. (Cinematographers — what are you gonna do?) Kaluuya gives us a stoic and almost comically unflappable figure — a classic Western hero — and Palmer crackles and pops as a firecracker with innumerable side hustles. 

Nope even tucks in some film history, telling us that the Black jockey who rode a horse for Eadweard Muybridge’s famous 1887 Animal Locomotion Plate 626 was the ancestor of OJ and Emerald. That’s a claim they make to boost their business; it’s also accurate inasmuch as the rider — to this day no one actually knows his name, though the fucking horse was identified — is, in a way, ancestor to all artists of color unnamed, dismissed, and ignored while they added to the history of cinema. The more we think back on Nope, the more depth it takes on; it is the work of a specifically Black sensibility fed by decades of Hollywood, for good (the influence on his own art) and ill (the reality of being non-white in the white dream factory). And Peele has fed well, and knows which bits are nourishing and which not, and he also knows the dangers of consuming too much filled with too little.

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¹Without getting into spoilers, what I mean is that Gordy doesn’t figure into the threat later on; it doesn’t turn out that he was controlled by the menace, or something. Other writers would try to tie those elements together in a neat, cheap little bow instead of allowing Gordy his own power as subtext.

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