Among his most amusing directorial quirks, Jordan Peele appreciates the melodrama of a good biblical citation: 2019’s killer doppelgänger vehicle Us tirelessly invokes Jeremiah 11:11 and his latest effort Nope opens with Nahum 3:6: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” It’s that last clause which perfuses Nope, a shrewd, tactile yarn about a brother-sister rancher duo in pursuit of video evidence of a UFO circling their home. Though Peele routinely prods at the Hollywood machine and its spectacles, here he unlades it all: Image-making as brutality, catharsis, posterity, surveillance, homage, indulgence.
Six months after a freak accident killed their father, siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) have taken over “Haywood’s Hollywood Horses,” Agua Dulce’s intergenerational horse-wrangling business which specializes in equine showbiz. In their address to an apathetic commercial crew, the pair maintain that they are the progenies of Alistair Haywood, the forgotten Black jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion, the first instance of chronophotography and a pivotal stepping stone in the development of motion pictures. Alistair is Peele’s creation, a smart bit of mythmaking that becomes the nucleus of a film so wary about entertainment and misplaced approbation, but still so keen to thrill. Working in beautiful contradistinction, Kaluuya plays OJ as stoic and reticent—the true older brother type—and Palmer’s Emerald is prodigiously magnetic and full of puckish chatter.
The Haywoods exist on the lower rungs of the industry, primarily doing business with Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), an effectual carnival barker who owns a Wild West amusement park. Jupe’s storyline is perhaps the most absorbing: A former child actor siloed from the profession since working on a sitcom where the chimpanzee protagonist, Gordy, went on a face-mashing spree, clobbering all of the actors save for Jupe. Ever the entrepreneurial entertainer, Jupe keeps a concealed room of Gordy paraphernalia—MAD Magazine spreads, photographs, an encased blood-stained slipper—which he shares with OJ and Emerald with chilling enthusiasm, relaying the SNL skit that “pretty much nailed it” in lieu of his reality as a traumatized, bloodied survivor. Yeun is exceptional, his boyish charisma put entirely to use as a cowboy salesman whose stardom was cut short, snarled up by the lingering impulse to entertain.
After a series of strange happenings—blackouts, agitated horses, pained noises emanating from the canyons—OJ observes what appears to be a flying saucer gliding through the inky night sky. The next day he spots a cloud that doesn’t move an inch. Suspecting a connection between the saucer and their father’s death, OJ and Emerald enlist the help of gawky, unstable techie Angel (Brandon Perea) and renowned documentarian Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott, excellent rasp) to obtain proof of the UFO, with intent to profit off of the footage. In a sense, the Haywoods want to make a movie.
This is Peele rescripting the American film canon, asking what it means to engage with such an exclusionary medium. There’s ongoing chatter between OJ and Emerald about getting the “money shot,” the image which will impart an indisputable truth and prove that extraterrestrials not only exist, but selectively hover over a Californian ranch. There’s a deeper desire embedded within the film stock and surveillance cameras, though, one of lineage and recognition. It’s no accident that Peele placed an overlooked Black filmmaking family at the forefront of a work which specifically threatens their livelihood; OJ and Emerald are suffering a localized threat, a static, innominate alien species positioned on the outskirts of their own home.
Shot in IMAX by Dutch cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema—a Christopher Nolan regular, responsible for the slick, beautified landscapes of Interstellar, Dunkirk and Tenet—Nope configures a world of sweeping, dusty landscapes and bloodied dwellings.
Steven Spielberg is less a point of reference here than he is the emotional roadmap. The Close Encounters of the Third Kind comparisons write themselves, but notionally, Nope is more like Jaws in the sky. As OJ repeatedly remarks, the UFO doesn’t move like a saucer; it’s sporadic but swift, cutting through clouds like a shark fin. The tension is deliciously replicated as well: There’s the threat of something descending from above—fluidly mobile and with an obscured vantage—that recalls Bruce’s motions from below, and the warped deceleration of music each time the power cuts out in Nope is the aural inverse of John Williams’ tense, grinding score.
Parts neo-Western, family drama, sci-fi and cosmic horror, Nope sees Peele balance more throughlines here than ever before: Aliens, Muybridge revisionism, undigested grief, chimpanzee carnage, a punctilious documentarian chasing the impossible. Peele’s first two films were defined both structurally and culturally by slippery exposition, where his characters’ motivations never felt fully-fledged, their gaps in logic caulked by confounding fan theories. Since Get Out, to “get” a work of his has meant to wrest its every fiber until there’s nothing left, to conquer it in some way; expound each joke and assign meaning to every frame.
When Emerald is trying to entice Antlers into her alien project, she confesses she has little money to compensate him for the task. He laughs, or maybe scoffs, and tells her he likes to make “one for them, one for me.” Nope is indisputably one for Peele—a spectacle in the least derogatory sense; a palimpsest of nostalgic blockbusters and Peele’s deservedly self-assured vision of Hollywood’s future; but mostly, a solution to and an undertaking of modernity.
Director: Jordan Peele
Writers: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun
Release Date: July 22, 2022
Saffron Maeve is a Toronto-based writer and critic who once had to be talked out of getting a Sy Ableman tattoo. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, MUBI Notebook, Screen Slate, and Girls on Tops, among other corners of the internet. You can unfortunately find her on Twitter.