While many of today’s filmmakers working with major studios rely on established brands or nostalgia to deliver something familiar and agreeable, it’s great to have a director like Jordan Peele producing movies like Nope. After showing what he’s capable of with his Oscar-winning social thriller Get Out and doubling down with the ambitious, motif-heavy Us, Peele has now upgraded to a horror epic. With sweeping cinematography (including gorgeous IMAX photography) juxtaposed with specific and pointed imagery, Nope has all the wonder one could want from a Spielbergian Summer blockbuster while still feeling utterly original. Add a solid set of performers and some amusing dialogue, and the makings of supreme spectacle have been delivered.
From the outset, Peele isn’t hiding ideas he wants to lean into, as we are shown foreboding imagery of a situation gone wrong and who the culprit is before delving into genre territory. That’s followed by another recurring motif – a black man on horseback. Is Nope a horror movie or a revisionist western? It’s a worthwhile question, and answers are given out as needed.
Daniel Kaluuya stars as Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr., a horse trainer who’s part of a legacy of black entertainers/trainers/stunt workers. We also briefly meet OJ’s father, Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), though he dies under mysterious circumstances involving debris from the sky. Cut to six months later, and OJ is struggling to keep his ranch going and the horses fed. His sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), is more outgoing and can give a good spiel about their family’s history (their great great great grandfather was the first person captured on film), but that’s not what will save their land.
Peele allows a good amount of breathing room in Nope. Inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, and Signs, among other films, the insistence on showing and not telling leads to intriguing sights early on, but there’s still plenty of time spent establishing this setting. We become familiar with the large, white house the Haywoods live in and the basic geography of their ranch. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema crafts stunning shots of the landscape, particularly at night, and more curiously – the film is framed to have the audience constantly watching the skies.
Additionally, the Haywoods live in an isolated area where a cloud hovers continuously over one spot. What’s going on with that? Another person may have a clue – child TV star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), who runs a western-themed amusement park near the Haywoods’ ranch. Establishing Jupe allows the film to come full circle in what it chooses to present when tying together the modern-day story with a key event from the past. It also speaks to at least one of the ideas being presented.
While Nope is perhaps more straightforward than Us, as far as working as a spectacle-filled adventure-thriller, it’s not without merit as a story layered with deeper meanings. One idea presented is the nature of creating a sensation and profiting from it. The main characters all rely on their skills and legacy to climb to the top. It’s one thing to encounter something otherworldly, but it’s another to have the first claim to it before it’s snatched up by others. Noting the financial status of these characters, let alone their positions in life, having them essentially used and discarded by Hollywood only adds to their desperation.
Given how this is a film from Peele, and the leads include two Black characters and a South Korean-American, it also feels like differing levels of appropriation are at play. For Jupe, it’s a man who’s taken on a western persona as a means to win big. For the Haywoods, one can see them functioning as a remedy to the notion of Black cowboys not being present during the frontier days of America. Peele’s well aware he’s not the first to call this imagery to mind (a poster for Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher is quite noticeable in certain scenes), but his moves to keep this aspect alive bring additional meaning to where the story goes. Hero shots of Kaluuya’s OJ on horseback are not done just to convey scale.
What does this all have to do with a mystery originating from above? It’s a matter of viewing a movie with possible science fiction elements from a perspective not often given. Once strange occurrences begin to manifest in scarier and more threatening ways, the actions taken reflect individuals with more honest reactions. “Nope” is stated multiple times as OJ and Emerald find themselves too close to the issue at hand. At the same time, others see opportunity in the danger.
Brandon Perera’s eager electronic store worker and Michael Wincott’s noted cinematographer searching for the perfect shot provide both winning support. There’s a specificity to both characters, allowing them to work within the film’s framework, even with so little established beyond their general demeanors (Wincott’s voice and dryly humorous deliveries are always a highlight). Of course, with the film so focused on viewing what’s happening in the moment with the key characters involved, it’s not as though Peele forgot to provide deeper characterizations for everyone. Set during a small window of time, Nope allows us to learn what’s needed and concentrate on more important aspects based on what’s presented.
Still, this doesn’t stop the film from showing what a strong brother-sister duo Kaluuya and Palmer are together. As the excitable, fast-talker, Palmer provides winning energy that assures the audience there’s plenty of fun to be had amidst the mystery of it all. Kaluuya, reuniting with Peele following his Oscar-nominated performance in Get Out, allows OJ’s stoicism to be a strength. While he may lack confidence in social situations, his efforts in reading problems and planning accordingly allow the film to settle into an ominous mood with an intelligent character not making dumb decisions.
Coming in at just over two hours, the film’s deceptively simple story may be asking the audience a bit too much overall when considering the various allusions to sort through, in addition to the plot at hand. At the same time, I can’t say I was ever uninterested in what was happening. Unlike films that attempt to be too clever for their own good, Nope is less about unpacking a mystery box, and more focused on revealing new information as it goes along. It does not take long to understand the basic idea of what’s taking place. This movie is more interested in what the characters plan to do with this information. As a result, several standout sequences accompany a genuinely entertaining film.
Nope may earn its R-rating for language and some violent imagery (though a younger me would have just as easily watched this Summer flick as I did T2: Judgement Day), its most shocking sequence is achieved by way of sound design and a very limited angle chosen to depict what’s going on. Other scenes find beauty in the reveals of how something moves through the clouds. Then there’s a climax that comfortably brings together so many established ideas for a multipart set piece informed by strong visual storytelling and genuine connection to the parties involved.
There’s more I plan to unpack as I consider the levels Peele is operating at with Nope. I see that as a promising way to regard this original film. That said, even when looking more on the surface, the movie has big ideas to match solid thrills and big laughs. As experimental as it may be for Peele, he’s still created a crowd-pleasing display of his talent for many to enjoy. That he also gets to flex his visual muscles is just a wonderful cherry on top, as there are sequences shot with IMAX cameras that are staggering to behold (set outside and indoors). As vague as I may have been about the plot, just note that Jordan Peele has delivered an adventurous horror film that asks you to watch the skies, be prepared, and appreciate how his Haywood characters keep their skin in the game.