Jordan Peele has become one of America’s foremost auteurs, rising with cacophonous noise instead of any subtlety. His first film (and still his masterpiece), Get Out, made waves in 2017 that landed the director an Oscar Nomination. He followed this darkly comic film with something more fluid and obtuse – the 2019 film Us. Still my personal favorite of his catalog, the film wound up polarizing the audience in an era where definitive answers are more popular than thought-provoking primal screams. It made my top ten of the year, but others wondered if this was where Peele would truly stumble. He’s now returned with Nope, a blockbuster adventure in the Agua Dulce desert of California that centers around a UFO mystery. Peele re-teams with former compatriot Daniel Kaluuya to tackle spectacle, the audience’s obsession with grim imagery on the silver screen, and the wake of bodies that the Hollywood machine has churned up and tossed aside, scattering them across the sand like chum to attract more to its open arms.
Great things can often have small beginnings, and Peele’s story begins with a nickel. That small piece of metal is embedded in the eye of Otis Haywood (Keith David), killing him in front of his son, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya). This event will consume the next several months of OJ’s life, often reaching back out to him from the wall where he mounts the biohazard bag containing the nickel that killed his father. The family ranch, Haywood Hollywood Horses, is under threat because the services it provides are often no longer required. OJ and his attention-starved sister, Emerald “Em” Haywood (Keke Palmer), continue trying to run things but they can’t seem to get it together. OJ is still in mourning, his depression mixing with the dismissive attitude he receives from directors that treat his animals as toys swirling into a quiet depression. Em is more interested in plugging her skills on set, hoping to engage with Hollywood in a way more meaningful to her than simply being the scion of silver screen horse trainers. After selling some of his horses to former-child-star-turned-huckster Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), several more go missing with screams in the night and OJ witnesses a silver object in the sky. The siblings scheme to capture it on film and cement their own legacy as the first to capture a UFO on film.
While the grisly moments are nothing to shake a stick at one should still brace themselves before going into Nope. The director’s previous efforts have resulted in unsettling violence, most of it involving household objects and feeling like something that could realistically happen (up to a certain point where a magical surgery takes over). He’s abandoned this for sci-fi adventure spectacle, spreading his wings and stretching his muscles a bit in order to try to single-handedly revive the classic big screen experience while examining our reasons for finding it enjoyable. His moments of pure, raw horror are few and far between but they stick with you like dried blood on your skin.
This makes for a welcome change of pace by leaning into the territory of one of the great Hollywood booms – the Western. Great desert landscapes, horse chases, and even a legendary cinematographer (played to absolute perfection by Michael Wincott, who sounds like he’s been gargling gravel to prepare his voice for this role) capturing it all on a hand-cranked film camera all harken back to an era where these stories landed side-by-side with sci-fi B-movie fluff, shaking hands with both Ed Wood and John Ford along the way. Peele is interested in skewering Hollywood, but his efforts cannot hide the fan within him as he leans into the adoration burgeoning from within. He’s teamed with Hoyt van Hoytema to capture these images on glorious IMAX cameras, shooting around 40% of the film for the biggest screens imaginable. Hoytema is notable for a great many works, but his efforts for Christopher Nolan are among his most legendary.
Nope offers more in its performances than simply a few precious minutes with Michael Wincott. Yeun is stunning here, playing the haunting specter of trauma while still harping earnestly about the comedic genius of Chris Kattan as he describes the tragedy that befell his childhood. These flashbacks feel extraneous at first, but help to drive home the ultimate point that Peele is trying to make as the third act climaxes. Kaluuya is quietly doing his thing, subtly moving from scene to scene as only he could during a horror film that centers around a character with no desire for the center stage. Daniel Kaluuya continues to be one of Hollywood’s most interesting actors, but it’s his eyes that do all the heavy lifting here. He’s joined by Palmer, who puts on the performance of a lifetime as Emerald Haywood. Everything from her movement to her earnest and achingly raw desire to grasp more than she’s got is the highlight of our string of performances, and that’s saying something given the company she’s keeping here.
There’s a regrettably disjointed feel to parts of the film that I don’t think are going to land for everyone. Yeun’s backstory only makes sense if one wants to grasp the larger message Peele is putting out into the universe, rendering it chaff to be trimmed for those that only want to engage with the sci-fi spectacle. The film is overly long, though I’d be hard pressed to say where and what I’d cut from it. Here and there are strange little stumbles, cracks in the armor of Peele’s normally confident visage, but they are gratefully small enough to keep from derailing the film (if not going ignored entirely).
The film is helped up from these stumbles by the director’s supreme understanding of music, its place within films, and even its subtle messaging when merely appearing. This is all great stuff, but the true win is the continued collaboration between Peele and composer Michael Abels. They have worked together on all three theatrical films, making Nope the latest triumph between the two. Abels captures old Western music, eerie horror stings, and sci-fi bombast with effortless grace. It’s almost boring to keep pointing out how perfectly these two understand each other but it’s necessary. Abels composed one of my favorite scores of 2019 with Us, but the music for Nope is going to give it a run for its money.
While this is going to put off a lot of people looking for a return to form for Peele, those willing to engage with his latest effort will find tons to love and quite possibly an exciting new voice being added to the blockbuster directors of Hollywood. Discussing spectacle, grisly death, and our obsession with watching it is not an easy task. Peele pulls it off with confidence, calling back to classics like Jaws, Signs, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind while making his latest unique enough to stand without immediate knowledge of his homages. His designs (the alien design in this, my god) deserve to be placed into the echelon of modern sci-fi classics and I’ll die on that hill. Nope isn’t a masterpiece, but rather a great time in an era where most major film releases are content to meander without meaning.
Nope is currently in theatres.