2022 | R | starring Keke Palmer, Daniel Kaluuya, Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea | written & directed by Jordan Peele | 2 hrs 10 mins |
In 2022, when theaters are dominated with superhero franchises, sequels and reboots, that an original story gets a wide release at all is a minor miracle. That’s the power of Jordan Peele, an inventive resourceful filmmaker that combines a love of cinema history, indie technique and genre imagination into must-see cinematic experiences. His films are flawed and rough, but ambitious and challenging. After his over-heated debut Get Out and the terrific Us (which landed high on my Best of the Year list), we were inundated with copy-cats and Peele produced knock-offs that pulled out the most superficial aspects of his Noir Horror style without the filmmaker’s love of the craft or filmmaking instincts behind them. He finally returns for a third outing with Nope. It is a messy, sometimes completely incoherent film, that matches it’s ambition and still manages to capture kernels of the filmmaker’s precise skill. Most exciting, Peele is so immune by studio trends that he’s dabbling in a genre that fell out of fashion a decade ago – an alien movie – and pumps new life into it.
OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) Haywood are siblings that run their father’s horse farm in the California desert, horses that they train for Hollywood movies. After their father (Keith David) is killed under mysterious circumstances, OJ starts following the bizarre behavior of their livestock into believing there is an alien spaceship hiding in the clouds watching them. Partnering with his sister and a Fry’s video tech Angel (Brandon Perea), they set out to capture definitive proof of UFOs, in the process sparking a fight with the craft that doesn’t want to be seen.
The Hayward Hollywood Horse ranch and the desert that surrounds it is a character itself in Nope. The barren wide-open landscape under a deep endless sky is the inspiration for Peele’s atmospheric tension here. A tension that is expertly milked in the film’s first half. Peele has made a neo-Western here in the same way Quintin Taranino did in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Peele unfolds it all with an icy slow burn, presenting us with bizarre imagines and slowly winding them together into a story that almost, mostly, makes sense, but works best in moments of world building and discovery. Not only do we get the horrific howling of the craft overhead, but the creation of a western theme part created by Jupe Park (Steven Yeun), a childhood TV start of a western called Kid Sheriff and a sitcom about a family living with a monkey called Gordy. More on that in a moment, but first, it’s that Speilbergian Close Encounters of the Third King tone that Peele hits dead-on here. The crowning achievement of Nope is just how it depicts the unknown horror of the sky above us. In this setting it feels like a vast, uncharted area just over our heads, where there could be something just beyond the clouds watching us, able to swoop down at any moment. He does for the clouds what Jaws did for the water, make us rethink that something we ordinarily see could be hiding something sinister.
Nope frequently ditches off into a subplot that’s regularly more interesting than it’s A story: the primate star of Gordy going wild and murdering the cast during a taping. It’s an event that Jupe has now monetized into an attraction. With a bit more meat, the Jupe story could have been a movie by itself. I get what Peele is doing. He’s giving every character in his world a rich history (again, shades of Tarantino’s side-quest storytelling here), but ultimately the Jupe story isn’t just one of several pieces of color in Nope, Peele puts so much amunition behind it that it constitutes an entire B-plot that competes with the A-plot, giving it a run for it’s alien money before it gets abandoned without folding back into the main story.
Ultimately, the set-up is better than the payoff in Nope. The sense of dread and danger is deflated when Peele’s mystery is revealed. I completely went for the twist the movie has up it’s sleeve, a clever spin on UFO film conventions we haven’t seen before. However, Peele botches the execution in the third act. He starts hitting flat notes and the film starts stopping and starting in a herky-jerky fashion that robs the film of a tightly paced finale. The movie gets it’s hands full juggling plotlines that don’t quite come together. Instead of simplifying things, it gets more convoluted and increasingly incoherent. It becomes clear that Peele’s knack for static horror doesn’t translate to a crowd-pleasing popcorn film the likes of which he tries to shift into for Nope’s climax. Characters suddenly behave bizarrely just to push the story forward. Plotlines are dropped and added entirely at the 11th hour. It is frustrating beyond worlds.
One of the problems with the finale is built into the set-up. OJ is designed as anti-social, aloof, disengaged after this father’s death. All that works in the first half and works against the film in the third. OJ is a realistic character, well played by an understated Kaluuya, but doesn’t fit the tonal turns of this story.
Nope is worth seeing. Fan’s of Peele’s methodical style of slow built tension will find a lot to chew on here. It’s original both in set-up and payoff. It’s when Peele tries to shift into crowd-pleaser Speilberg mode that he gets in over his head and lets the movie get away from him. Interesting, debatable, smart, skillfull and rare.