Written & Directed by Jordan Peele
It’s rare to have these moments, but this is the most excited I have been to write about a new release film for a long time. Especially a summer blockbuster movie, which has become one of my least favorite kinds of films in recent years. Before we get into the meat of the interview, I will also say that this is my favorite Jordan Peele movie, and I would argue it is the picture that will take him to the next level of his career. Get Out & Us are great movies, but I think Nope has that extra bit that was always missing for me. This is a movie that people should discuss in how they talk about Jaws or The Exorcist or any other “phenomenon” movie. If Nope had come out in the 1980s, it would have been a massive hit on the level of those movies. Unfortunately, I think it won’t have that level of buzz because we live in such a media-saturated world.
Otis Haywood Jr, or O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya), stays true to the family business, raising horses for film productions. This work has been a part of his family since cinema’s dawn. But one sad day, while working with the horses, Otis Sr. (Keith David) is tragically killed. It is an utterly freak accident, but the source of his demise points to something in the clouds over the ranch. Emerald “Em” Haywood (Keke Palmer) is the sibling focused on stardom for herself, but she makes a better face for the family business than the typically quiet & observant O.J. The two are at the ranch a few weeks after Senior passes when the power shuts off, and O.J. glimpses an object quietly zipping through the clouds. A UFO. Brother and sister work together with the idea that if they can capture this thing on video, it will make them rich, and they can keep the Haywood Ranch in operation. It’s not going to be that easy. And what you think you know is not what it seems. Then there’s the massacre on the set of the 1998 sitcom. And the carnival on the hill nearby.
I don’t know if it’s just nostalgia talking, but despite all the maudlin sentiment, there is something magical about a Steven Spielberg film. When he leans into a sense of mystery and wonder, you can’t help but feel goosebumps. Spielberg makes movies that support those awards show ceremony declarations of the magic of film, the feel of being in a theater and ready to watch a story unfold. Jordan Peele has managed to capture that better than any other filmmaker. I’m looking in your direction, J.J. Abrams and Super 8. While that movie tried to mimic Spielberg, it’s ultimately just a pale imitation. Peele drills down the emotions and spectacle of Spielberg and delivers a cinematic experience that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Until the last act of Nope, I didn’t know where the story was going, but I savored every minute of it. Seeing these characters become more invested in uncovering the truth hooked me.
Nope is very much about perspective and especially seeing. If you take away nothing else, let it be that Daniel Kaluuya has one of the best faces for reacting. Especially his eyes. There is a world-weary nature to O.J. He’s a young guy, but he’s only had one adult to shape his personality after, and that’s his dad. Despite being in his early 30s, O.J. carries himself like someone who has been through rough patches. The titular line of the film is his, delivered in the second act, and the perfect response to what he sees outside his truck. Keke Palmer holds her own as well; with Em being a character that could have quickly become obnoxious, she manages to stay true to the bold, loud nature of Em while not holding back from letting her be vulnerable. It will be impossible for you not to feel a sense of joy for her in the movie’s final moments.
To classify Nope in one genre of filmmaking is pretty much impossible. It’s definitely science fiction but also horror and comedy and a summer crowd pleaser, and a family drama. As someone who does not enjoy most horror comedies, I would say this is my favorite of all time. I’ve never seen a movie that perfectly balances moments of humor with some genuinely visceral horrific scenes. Not once did I feel that the tone was off; each moment flowed into the next, and character reactions never felt contrived. There are some big themes running through the story, yet it never feels heavy-handed; you can easily appreciate the movie for just the surface-level story, but you can also indulge and go deeper.
My personal read of the movie is that Peele is commenting on modern filmmaking. If you go to theaters these days, the type of movie you’ll see has been reduced to three possible genres. Peele isn’t even arguing for art-house movies; he’d be happy just to see a film with no implied cinematic universe connected to it. When most special effects are digital, movies lose a sense of texture. There are good reasons to do digital effects; we see one of them played out in pieces throughout the picture. However, we lose connection with a film when even the background is digitally spliced in, looking at you, Disney and StageCraft. But don’t get caught up too much in any of that because, ultimately, Nope is just a fantastically crafted movie. This really is the thing that makes me love when Hollywood goes all out, no pretense of merchandising & licensing, just a really exciting & engaging film.