The Return of Jordan Peele
It looks like there’s something in the sky. Just above the clouds, lurking and waiting. If you look up at just the right time, you might notice it. You might even be able to describe its shape and form. What this thing in the sky is lurking and waiting for is unknown to the inhabitants of an isolated, desert-ridden California valley, but like the nature of spectacle and entertainment, they can’t seem to look away, and neither can we.
Peele’s breakout films were both films notable for sharp social commentary, with Get Out and Us both exploring very real fears and problems in society. Nope is less about the fears that live next door to us and more about what we see around us and go after anyways. The thrill of a good chase is the momentum that makes Nope feel like such a fresh summer blockbuster, blending together elements of horror, sci-fi and comedy to create a strong, assured vision from one of our most exciting modern directors.
Set at a California horse ranch that handles and trains horses for movies, OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Em Haywood (Keke Palmer) inherit the property after their father mysteriously dies one day. Six months after his death, the two siblings notice something in the sky and become witnesses to a truly horrific discovery that threatens their lives. The siblings decide to try and capture this discovery on camera to make their spectacular findings public.
In the promotion for Nope, the film’s specific plot details have been kept under wraps, with many fans online speculating what the film truly has in store for audiences. The fear of not only the unknown, but knowing that something is wrong and not knowing when exactly it’s going to strike, is the type of specific tension that Peele plays on throughout to keep the audience on their toes. From the very opening scene alone, Peele places the audience in the palm of his hand with creepy imagery and never lets us go. The pacing of the film is very carefully done, at times almost feeling like a classic Hollywood film in how it gradually builds from scene to scene. While Nope is perhaps not quite as strongly structured as his previous two films, with some moments in the film going on for a bit long or becoming slightly meandering, his knack for being able to balance different genres and tones within the same scene hasn’t been lost.
While Get Out cost $4.5 million to make and Us cost $20 million, Nope is Peele’s most ambitious undertaking yet with a budget of $68 million. The bigger budget here clearly pays off with gorgeous cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema (Dunkirk, Her) that makes a simple pan across the big, vast Californian valley carry so much tension. It’s clear to me that Nope is Peele’s most impressive directorial debut to date just on a technical level alone, and the decision to shoot the film with IMAX cameras was a perfect choice. It becomes especially evident in the film’s climatic third act that Nope is a film made for the big screen experience, and deserves to be seen in theaters. Michael Abels, who also scored Peele’s other two films, returns here with a terrific score which, along with the horrifying and brilliant sound design by Johnnie Burn, helps to create a rich and terrifying atmosphere.
At the heart of Nope is the bond between two siblings, particularly in the aftermath of their father’s death and how they both deal with it differently. Kaluuya’s OJ is withdrawn and depressed from the world around him while Palmer’s Em provides a crucial balance with many hilarious scenes and one-liners. While there perhaps could’ve been more character development at times, Nope still provides fairly strong arcs for the two characters (particularly OJ). In Palmer’s introduction scene, her monologue talking about her connection to the black man on a horse in the infamous 1878 Horse in Motion short not only introduces the audience to her character but to the idea of how significant capturing moments on film can be.
The rest of the cast is strong too, with Steven Yeun’s portrayal of Jupe being a strong highlight. Jupe is an extremely interesting character with a traumatic backstory as the sole survivor of a mysterious incident. Discovering more about Jupe’s character and his decisions brings the ideas of exploitation for entertainment and the way that trauma is used to make profits into the film in a chilling way. While the film might’ve been even stronger by tying the backstory of Jupe’s character more directly into the main conflict of the film, it still provides a chilling and disturbing way to illustrate the ideas on Peele’s mind.
Nope is a very strong third film from Peele that delivers on so many different levels. One thing I really admire about him is that while he is always growing as a filmmaker and writer, he isn’t allowing his fast track to fame as a director keep him from making the movies he wants to. Despite a bigger budget and a story set on a larger scale, Peele doesn’t sacrifice his ability to write his characters and themes in a compelling, memorable way. While there will certainly be audiences that walk out of Nope feeling disappointed based on expectations from his last two films, those who go along for the ride will find so much to love here. I’m here for it, and whatever comes next.