His third film is an almost-masterpiece, aiming at the entertainment industry’s relentless thirst for spectacle.
In Nope, just about everyone is a consumer. There are those who watch and others who watch us watching, and no amount of trauma or tragedy depicted onscreen will satiate either of our vicious, cyclical appetites for spectacle. It’s no wonder Nope quickly marks the beginning of all life put to film with the moving images of a Black man riding a horse for two seconds. We really did have everything, didn’t we?
For the record, some films preach societal morality packaged within stomach-expanding veneers of hollow goodness, and then there’s Nope. There’s Don’t Look Up and Jurassic World, and then there’s Nope. A vicious blend of not just blockbuster genres but sheer blockbuster vibes. Does Jaws have a vibe? What about Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Searchers, and High Noon? Throw it all into the same blood-soaked mix, and you start to see what Jordan Peele is after with his third film. Though it does take a while to get there.
LA-based horse trainer OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) is the stoic embodiment of what many critics and audiences wish themselves to be. An analog, aloof statue of self-defined virtue. Honest, humble, respectful of nature, minding his business, and practicing common sense like a scribe. His sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), is far more unpredictable but just as engaging in her quest to help OJ save their father’s ranch by documenting several strange occurrences around the gulch that could win them huge money in the National Enquirer market. You can probably see where this is going, but you probably don’t.
The Haywood siblings have an enigmatic neighbor. Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) is a former child star turned glorified theme park hustler. Rather than move on from the horrors of his childhood (both literally and figuratively), Jupe has decided to monetize. It’s somewhat unclear at first how his story is supposed to connect with what we assume is the main narrative, but if you give Nope at least half its runtime, you’ll see that Peele is only demanding a little of your patience. It all comes together. Eventually. Brutally. Painfully.
There are two scenes in Nope, at least, that are sure to evoke repulsive terror in ways many haven’t seen in quite a while, certainly not from a summer blockbuster with a $68 million budget. Hesitate before taking kids to this one unless you want to kickstart a life of constantly chasing that same adventure-horror high that radicalized an entire generation of latchkey kids in 1975.
Peele is more efficient with the mind-bending this time, even if he is a bit excessive with the genre-bending. Get Out was a layered thriller, while Us was almost nothing but layers, demanding an encyclopedia’s worth of conversation to begin unraveling. Nope sticks a little closer to the former, choosing its battles of when to be straightforward and literal versus burying the lede. It’s not a revolutionary metaphor to suggest that audiences are primal monsters, unable to be tamed in ways that animals are often underestimated before they burn the place down. Yet Peele still finds that extra, haunting morsel, particularly when he raises the bloody fist of a particular creature to suggest that what kills us is what loves us.
The way Peele delivers this message is most successful when he lays out the highest craft in his scene directing. In two or three minutes, he can lay out an entire life’s worth of motivation and worldview without choking us with it. If he had managed a little more of this careful character-building in the first half, we’d probably have an unassailable masterpiece on our hands, where the explosive climax hits in every sense, from sound to visual to heart. Instead, filling in the blanks yourself is practically a requirement. Maybe even the point.
Nope won’t resonate with everyone for the right reasons. Peele probably understands and expects this in the same way Hitchcock and Powell did. There’s a viewer who will place themselves, undeservedly, in the shoes of the core characters instead of who they really are, and they’ll walk out with a false sense of gratification. No stopping that. Perhaps Peele’s little trick is to at least plant a seed of self-doubt in some, while many others will certainly take these lessons to heart. If we don’t change something soon, Hollywood and pop culture will absolutely, unequivocally swallow us whole. And you know what’s scary? We’ll let them.
Nope implicates you in the spectacle in theaters July 22nd.