I loved Nope. It is a movie concerned with spectacle, but not in the way modern movie audiences are familiar. Jordan Peele is less concerned with giving you jaw-dropping CGI monsters and more intent on giving you the feeling of spectacle. By the end of Nope, I found myself on the edge of my seat, hands clasped, wondering if our heroes would make it and what Peele had in store for me next.
Peele’s third movie is about the idea of spectacle and the profoundly human need for spectacle. Many intrinsically human things are often derided as a fault of the current generation. Humans have always been vain creatures with short attention spans obsessed with documenting the minutiae of life-this is not new. Likewise, our appetite for the feeling of grandeur mixed with our thirst for the dramatic and the grotesque is not new.
Written and directed by Peele, Nope is an exciting film for both what he decides to show us and what he doesn’t show us. Peele is painting with broad brushstrokes but using a brush made of the most delicate hairs, allowing little details to captivate us before the largesses of a sleek summer blockbuster overtake us. At times I could feel Peele himself smirking behind the camera as he prods and manipulates us into exactly where he wants us.
It was a riveting experience that far too few big-budget movies seem capable of replicating.
Like his previous films, Nope is a genre film. Or at least a film that plays at being a genre film while exploring notions of exploitation and our obsession with images in general. More than any film, Nope feels like Peele’s attempt to try and understand what it is about movies compel us to pay money to sit in a dark room and stare upwards at the larger-than-life images flickering across the screen.
For all the Spielbegrian influences evident in Nope, the movie that feels most comparable is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. I can’t explain it; it’s just something I feel. Nope, is a movie in love with movies but also curious about them.
The Haywoods are a family whose history with movies is steeped in their origins. The first few moving frames were of a black man on a horse. He was a Haywood. The family patriarch Otis (Keith David), carries on the family tradition even though the current landscape favors VFX over real-life horses. After Otis dies, his children OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) take over.
Kaluuya’s Otic is a man of few words. Yet, our eyes are drawn to him, even as he stands, his head tilted down, trying to avoid our gaze. His performance is entirely internal. In his eyes, we see a man struggling to understand the best way to communicate his thoughts and feelings before giving up and shrugging.
If Otis is the strong, silent older brother, Emerald is the outgoing, brash younger sister. The two make for an odd couple. Kaluuya’s stoic presence is magnetic, as is Palmer’s indomitable enthusiasm. Palmer’s Emerald is just as unsure; only she covers her trepidation with an outgoing charm.
Both actors share prickly energy reserved for siblings, an intense love mixed with periodic annoyance that makes their relationship effortlessly believable. In one scene, the two give each other a high five with such force and jubilation as they keep eye contact. They say more with a look than words can convey. So much so, even though it lasts for only a few seconds, it is a moment that sears itself into my memory as perfectly realized characters in a way, so few films achieve.
Peele keeps his character slate sparse, like the western landscape so prominently featured in every scene. We meet Ricky (Steven Yeun), who owns a local old west town nearby, and to who OJ sells horses when money is tight.
Ricky seems almost ephemeral to the plot. As does his backstory involving a television show: and a macabre dramatization of industry exploitation by a trained monkey going feral. At least it does until you step back and realize that Ricky is a tragic figure marred by trauma and unable to see how he has become an exploiter himself even as he uses his trauma to sell to people, to sell a piece of himself.
An undercurrent in Nope talks about the relationship between the person and the camera from both sides. Although, the camera itself is viewed almost as a mystic relic of a bygone era. The cameras in the film have a haunting vibe. One camera, in particular, lays at the bottom of a well and must be hand cranked. It’s a tourist attraction at Ricky’s park meant to take oversized pictures of the sky above, again, an attempt to replicate the endless horizon of the world around us into a single frame.
Yeun plays Ricky with a sort of fatalistic charm. A man haunted but who has so bought into the American dream of the hustle and grind that he shoves it aside, hoping each payday will make it go away. Yeun has a monologue in which he tries to tell OJ and Emerald about the incident, and the only way he describes it is by describing the SNL sketch that spoofed it. The smile on his face as he explains how Chris Kattan nails the chimps’ mannerisms is haunting and darkly funny.
Peele’s sense of humor remains intact as ever, except in Nope, he’s not relying on it as a release valve. Even the title is a macabre joke. A reference to the internal tug of war within every one of us when confronted with something incomprehensible. The urge to at once gawk and turn away. More than one character, when faced with the entity, turns away and whispers, “Nope. Nope.” Funny, yes, but also a human reaction when confronted with something so far outside the everyday reality that we are both enraptured and horrified.
Eventually, OJ and Emerald are joined by Angel (Brandon Perea), a tech at the local electronic store hired by OJ and Emerald to install their security camera. They hope to capture the entity and make a fortune. However, Angel immediately realizes this and inserts himself into their plans, partly out of a sincere desire to find the answers and partially because he has just been dumped and needs something to distract him.
Their bungled attempts to capture the beast on camera led them to hire the legendary cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott). Wincott seems to channel a mixture of Sam Elliot and Peter Coyote, resulting in one of the most enigmatic characters I’ve seen on screen this year. Unfortunately, we get precious little of Wincott’s Holst, only that he is obsessed with scenes of horror and death; we see him obsessively watching old footage of a jungle cat fighting a boa, and thus our heroes have been assembled.
You may have noticed that I have gone out of my way, not to mention much about the plot. I have done this partly because of the deranged spoiler culture that taints everything it touches and partly because I want you to see it yourself. For example, if I tell you there is a scene where Peele and his cameraperson Hoyte van Hoytema take us inside an alien’s intestinal tract, the image in your head will likely not resemble the actual image; especially if I tell you what the creature resembles.
Hoytema and Peele fill Nope with scenes of lyrical beauty, simple dread, gothic horror, and my personal favorite- frames framed within frames. I’m a sucker for that stuff. Nope takes its time as it slowly draws you in, at first by hinting at something before revealing the truth and having it be slightly weirder than you initially thought. But, above all, it is a film that demands you go with it; it will not wait for you to buy into its concept; you are either on board or not.
Peele has managed to make a movie filled with thrills and contemplative themes. Yet, in many ways, it feels as if Peele is asking a question as old as time. What makes us as a species so voyeuristic? Why do we feel compelled to create images or stare at them, even though they contain events or moments that disturb us?
Nope doesn’t have answers, thank goodness. That would make Nope pretentious and ponderous in the worst way. Thankfully, Peele is far too smart for that. Instead, he is content with crafting a mood and an experience that isn’t afraid to muse to itself how curiouser and curiouser it all is.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures
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