Whenever I saw a great film as a child, I would come back home and be buzzing. My mind would be swimming, my imagination running with a feeling that I was, somehow, in the world the film had created. It is hard to recreate that feeling as an adult, but this is nonetheless how Jordan Peele‘s Nope made me feel. Walking out of the theater, looking up at the sky with a little more hesitation and possessing a feeling that only a cinematic spectacle could conjure up. It really is a wonder at times, a mysterious science fiction horror that owes a debt to Close Encounters of the Third Kind in a way, but Peele takes that story in a far different direction while layering his film with not only terror but considerable subtext. Compared to Get Out and Us, Nope retains the narrative ambition but struggles at times with bloat and keeping its subtext from running wild. Nonetheless, in terms of an overall experience, Nope is a phenomenal trip to theaters and develops a truly arresting atmosphere that grips the viewer from the first frame and never lets go.
Peele keeps the film’s truth at a distance at first, slowly putting together the pieces and creating an unnerving mood without making it immediately clear how it all connects. A monkey gone wild on a sitcom set, Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) and his horse encountering some freak storm, and a mystery cloud in the distance. As with the best of science fiction, Peele makes the improbable and unbelievable into something that feels truly possible, tangible, and terrifying. Leaving a little bit of mystery and refusing to elaborate for a while – even after multiple encounters with whatever is out there – can frustrate, but also ramps up the unease. After the death of Otis Sr., Otis Jr, “OJ” (Daniel Kaluuya) is left to run his horse training ranch, though it is not a natural fit. He is a good horse trainer, but he is not up for schmoozing and talking nonsense with the Hollywood clients who hire him. His sister Emerald, “Em” (Keke Palmer) is a fair bit better at that, though she is always on the move, largely leaving OJ to run the business. After first encountering this oddity in the sky, they see a chance to snap a photo and make money – up to now, they were struggling mightily with OJ forced to sell 10 horses to nearby theme park owner and former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) – but even with the help of electronics store employee Angel (Brandon Perea) – who sets up new high-tech security cameras for OJ and Em, only to keep hanging around out of curiosity – they can hardly make out what is happening. By the time they start to get a glimpse or start to formulate ideas, they have to run for their lives with yet another stretch of terror set to unfold. Keeping it so mysterious for so long enables the repeated attacks to still be scary, playing on the fear of the unknown and heavily relying on “what you cannot see” with the viewer’s imagination doing so much more than gore could ever do.
It is this fear of the unknown that allows one’s mind to run wild. A scene where OJ has a close encounter with something in the barn is top-tier: unnerving and edge-of-your-seat material. A cloud that stays a little too long in the sky or simply watching a horse run amuck in the middle of the night are more than enough to leave the viewer unsettled. By the time it comes together and reveals itself and blood pours from the sky onto this isolated house, Nope proves an absolutely thrilling experience. It loses some mystique in trying to explain too much about the answer and the fear of the unknown dissipates, but watching these characters handle this challenge is rewarding in its own right.
Thematically, Nope is as ambitious as Peele’s other works, focusing on the relationship between humans and animals, the forgotten contributions of Black people in cinema, and on spectacle. No matter the animal (or alien), their boundaries are disrespected or their unpredictability is forgotten. OJ, as a horse trainer, knows all too well what animals are capable of if disregarded. Thus, he is able to face down the supernatural through understanding and learning its habits, but others like Jupe suffer at the hand of their own ignorance and disrespect. Peele confronts the role of Black contributors similarly, attacking it head on and inverting cinematic history. As the film references, the identity of a Black man riding a horse is unknown, even though he was the star of the first composed moving images. Well, by the end of Nope, it is now a Black man on a horse and a Black woman with a camera who are in the position to be the heroes.
Peele opens the film with a verse from Nahum in the Bible, “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile and make you a spectacle,” setting the tone for the film’s Biblical subtext (the sky creature design inspired by throne angels in the Bible) as well as its criticism of society’s consumption of trauma as spectacle. This is a film about showing the viewer who we are. We consume tragedy, trauma, and terror, on a daily basis, often trivializing it or simply turning it into spectacle for us to mindlessly consume. Not only does Saturday Night Live parody tragedy in Nope, but Jupe himself profits from a violent occurrence from his youth. From a shrine that he rents out to fans to preserving mementos from the event, he has bottled and sold his own personal nightmare. Jupe puts on a smiling, charismatic face, but the trauma lurks within his eyes and now, he sells the same horror back to his audience. Nope is who we are as a traumatized world that is incapable of processing grief and this reflection can be truly vile.
As Nope barrels towards its conclusion, it can drag on and leave its subtext/subplot flapping in the wind, while coming to a rather abrupt finale that far too conveniently resolves its issues. Nonetheless, it represents another strong blend of Peele’s great knack for making thought-provoking cinema that is just plainly entertaining. Daniel Kaluuya is great, his eyes often glowing in the dark as he moves about his ranch and drawing the audience right into his inner terror and uncertainty. Keke Palmer brings color and life to the picture, commanding attention from her first frame and bursting with energy. Kaluuya and Palmer share considerable chemistry together as a brother-sister duo, making both OJ and Em as both individuals and siblings feel incredibly authentic. Michael Wincott is also great as this growling Werner Herzog-like cinematographer, arduously shooting on film and having a weathered demeanor about him that makes this smaller character into a truly impactful one. Peele never shies away from levity with each, as well as Angel, bringing some comedic touches along the way that helps Nope into being a full-bodied cinematic spectacle itself.
Thematically rewarding and richly entertaining, Nope finds Jordan Peele again striking a great balance between ideas and thrills. It is an ambitious film, at times too much so for its own good, but with great effects, performances (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer shine), and commentary, Nope is another very good entry into Peele’s filmography.