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It’s surprising how little information about writer/director Jordan Peele’s “Nope” has leaked since it was first announced. There have been a few trailers that show what may or may not be the film’s primary threat, and the marketing team has done a very good job with posters of its main cast members looking up at the sky and uttering the film’s title. All that thirst for capitalistic box office gain comes with a price, namely that it builds hype and an audience expectation that may not be met once the finished product is unveiled. This invariably leads to whiny complaints on Twitter and a plethora of think pieces I have no desire to read, even if I didn’t like the movie.
I’ve always had begrudging respect for a filmmaker who refuses to cater to a viewer’s pre-ordained expectations, even if said viewer is yours truly. It’s why I attend David Lynch movies despite never being a fan of the director’s work. So, I’ve been replaying a throwaway line of dialogue in my head as a potential explanation for how “Nope” is constructed and executed. In response to a pitch for his services, cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) tells Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) that he “makes one movie for them, and one for me.” This is a callback to John Cassavetes’ philosophy/excuse for appearing in trash—the pay allowed him to finance the movies he wanted to create.
After the massively entertaining, Oscar-winning calling card of “Get Out,” Jordan Peele moved toward a hybrid of audience pleaser and filmmaker’s jones with “Us.” That film was less blatant and required more work on the audience’s part, which made it fascinating for some and frustrating for others. It was also powered by a career-best performance by Lupita Nyong’o, whose dual role was unshakably strange and multilayered. There is no equivalent performance in “Nope” to anchor viewers, and it’s about three times as messy, but I got the feeling that Holst is Peele’s stand-in, that is, the director is revealing to us through a character that he made this film to amuse and please himself. If that is true, then Holst’s final scene says a lot about his creator; it’s a moment of self-sacrifice in lieu of the perfect camera shot.
Prior to the pitch for work scene, Holst and Emerald met on the set of a commercial he was shooting. She arrived late to assist her horse-wrangler brother Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) with the animal hired for the ad. That shoot goes awry, but not before Peele drops some breadcrumbs that will lead viewers through the forest he’s built for us to get lost inside. He also includes a nice cameo from nighttime soap opera legend Donna Mills. Speaking of cameos, the opening scene of “Nope” features Keith David as Otis Sr., head of Haywood Hollywood Horses, the family business. The Haywood’s ancestors were the first Black stuntpeople and animal wranglers in Hollywood, going back to the earliest days of movie making. That seems like an extraneous detail, but nothing is truly extra in a Jordan Peele movie.
The rest of the cast features Steven Yuen as Jupe, a barker who runs an alien-based carnival of sorts out in the same middle of nowhere the Haywoods have their ranch, and Angel (Brandon Perea), a techie specializing in surveillance equipment he sells out of a Best Buy clone called Fry’s. Jupe is the survivor of a horrific freak accident on a television show that had the first use of a certain type of animal. Angel is hired to install fancy cameras on the Haywood ranch so that Otis and Emerald can be the first to capture “the Oprah shot” of a specific event I won’t reveal. All this focus on being the first to do something! Again, no detail is completely extra in a Jordan Peele movie.
With “Nope,” Peele continues to explore and repeat certain elements of his prior works. Like “Us,” there’s a Bible quote that may be another breadcrumb to follow. This time it’s Nahum 3:6, which says “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.” There’s also a focus on animals, with horses playing a major role here. Unlike the deer in “Get Out” and the rabbits in “Us,” symbols of creatures being preyed upon, Peele reverses the power dynamic by turning into prey the most dangerous predator of all. There’s also the unusual use of an inanimate object; in “Us” it was scissors, in “Nope” it’s a fake horse and those weird, swaying air-filled things every used car dealer seems to have.
“Nope” is not as good as “Get Out” or “Us,” but it’s definitely Peele’s creepiest movie. He’s always been more Rod Serling than Rob Zombie, and that’s most evident here. There’s humor to be had in the minority characters’ reactions to horror (yes, they say “nope” the way most people would say “oh HELL NAW!”), but the director really leans into Hitchcock’s tenet about suspense vs. surprise. The wait for something awful to happen is always worse than when it does. Additionally, Peele remains a master of misdirection, offering fleeting glimpses of something that’s amiss or keeping the most brutal violence just beyond our view. The sound mix on this is aces, and I’ll never tire of horror movies that center on Black protagonists who are more than just fodder for whatever’s killing everybody.
Peele also gets good performances out of Kaluuya and Palmer, who believably work the sibling angle with all its longstanding grudges, in-jokes and patterns based on who’s older. Wincott wields his wonderful voice as a force of nature. Yuen seems to be off-kilter and the movie’s weak link, but the more I thought about his plotline, the more his performance made sense. I think he’s the film’s biggest breadcrumb in terms of figuring it all out. As for the special effects, they’re interesting, to say the least.
Truth be told, “Nope” reaches a conventional end point that would probably be more satisfying to most audiences had the journey been more tuned to the usual ways these stories are told. After my IMAX screening, there was a smattering of audience applause but I heard lots of grumbling. Call me a sadist if you must, but this is my favorite type of audience reaction. One particularly angry guy behind me on the escalator said “I can’t wait for the critics reviews calling this ‘splendid’!” “Nope” isn’t splendid, but it is pretty damn good. I had a lot of fun trying to figure it out. It’s a puzzle with a few pieces missing; standing back from it, you can still see the picture. But does it give the viewer exactly what they want? See the title.
Available in theaters on July 22nd.
Daniel Kaluuya as OJ Haywood
Keke Palmer as Emerald 'Em' Haywood
Steven Yeun as Ricky 'Jupe' Park
Brandon Perea as Angel Torres
Michael Wincott as Craig
Barbie Ferreira as Nessie
Donna Mills as Bonnie Clayton
Terry Notary as Gordy
Jennifer Lafleur as Phyllis
Keith David as Otis Haywood Sr.