Well, I’d say that’s a solid ‘3 for 3’ for writer / director / producer Jordan Peele, with the comedian-turned-filmmaker having now gifted us with his impressive 2017 feature film debut Get Out, joined two years later by a solid follow-up with 2019’s Us. I found both of those to be surprisingly effective thrillers that used just enough subtle but clever comedy to offset the well-positioned thrills and twists populating both stories. Based on that, I was genuinely curious to see how Round 3 would play out for Mr. Peele, with the cheekily-titled Nope hitting theatre’s just last year.
It didn’t take long for encouraging word-of-mouth to start getting around about this one and that inevitably landed it on my Must See list. Having now experienced it, I do wish I’d taken the time to drag my ass to a theatre to check it out, but alas…I did not.
SO, when I was told by a good buddy of mine that it had recently hit one of the streamers that we subscribe to, my wife and I earmarked it for a Friday night viewing, after some friendly hoots and libations.
Yesterday was Friday.
Nope is the story of two siblings, ‘OJ’ (Daniel Kaluuya) and ‘Emerald Haywood’ (Keke Palmer), whose late father was known for running one of the only black-owned Hollywood horse wrangling ranches in California, which they both now oversee. Strange events are happening in the skies above their expansive property and, in short order, they find themselves set upon by an unknown force that becomes more emboldened and threatening as time goes on. It also becomes apparent that the mysterious death of their father on the property has an explanation that defies belief but can’t be ignored. Realizing that this eerie phenomenon is bigger and deadlier than they can handle, they get help in the form of slacker retail electronics tech / UFO enthusiast ‘Angel’ (Brandon Perea) and a renowned Hollywood cameraman named ‘Antlers’ (Michael Wincott), both of whom are keen to capture genuine footage of what is supposedly happening. Adjacent to this narrative is the story of ‘Jupe’ (Steven Yeun), a former child TV star who’s set up a cheesy road-side attraction nearby and is exploiting his involvement in a gruesome on-set incident years before involving a chimp losing it’s shit and the devastating amount of destruction and horror it caused. ‘Jupe’, for some mysterious reason, has been buying horses from ‘OJ’ recently, horses that have been going missing with no explanation. It soon becomes apparent that the terrifying events plaguing the Haywood Ranch are somehow connected to their neighbor’s unique brand of showmanship.
I’m happy to report that I got almost exactly what I had hoped I would get from this flick. First off, I’m a sucker for a good ‘alien’ story, especially one using the concepts of ‘actual’ UFO sightings and encounters to springboard off of. I love that stuff, and the way that Jordan Peele explored and utilized the concept definitely held my attention. Hell, when the flick was over, I found myself sifting through various Youtube snippets of UFO footage, old and new, as my curiosity about the decades old-but-always-relevant subject had been most decidedly rekindled. On a narrative level, I appreciate that Peele didn’t feel the need to hold the audience’s hand, with some story elements remaining mysterious all the way through, like ‘Jupe’s story of Nature Run Amok on a soundstage, a story that’s best viewed as metaphorical in the grander scheme, especially when some of the former child star’s motivations become clear. It would be super easy for a less discerning audience member to ask “What the fuck does this have to do with alien menaces?”, but the more astute viewers will pick up on the signs pointing toward ‘Jupe’s misguided actions and his reasons for them. And that’s just one example.
Another aspect that I appreciated was how Peele opted to turn some of the expected tropes of the horror / sci-fi genre on their heads, such as making lights abruptly turning on scary (as opposed to plunging an imperilled character into threatening darkness), or portraying wide open spaces in broad daylight as something to be feared. But when it came time to apply the appropriate and expected tropes, I think he nailed those too.
This movie looks great and if you know the references (like at least two direct homages to the 1988 anime classic Akira, for example, apparently one of Peele’s favorite films) that he visually sprinkled throughout the 2 hour, 10 minute runtime, it just makes it all the better. Through the use of wide, long shots that take their time, the sprawling, scrub-infested desert hills that make up the Haywood Ranch become a character onto itself. Hell, even the clouds and how they’re shown plays a significant role. Jordan Peele has clearly established, over the course of his trio of feature films, that he knows how to craft an effective shot, and Nope is filled with them.
To compliment the impressive cinematography and editing, mention must be given to the creative and robust sound design. Beyond the highly effective yet simple soundscapes featuring the plaintive tones of wind or rain, the sound design for the antagonist was very cool, be it the far-off screams that accompany it as it moves or what sounds like some strange form of epically realized echo location, reverberating through the sky and hills. If you check this one out, it’s certainly to your benefit to turn it up on a solid sound-system and let yourself get sucked into world Peele is crafting for you.
Without picking apart the living hell out of this movie, I can just sum it up like this – Nope is another triumphant genre entry from a man who is emerging as a reliable new talent in the horror / science fiction game. The cast may not be big, but everyone commits, giving us effective and interesting characters who are not perfect people, but who band together to take on this otherworldly threat as the clever yet restrained narrative spools out. And, without ruining it, I’ll say that when the antagonist is finally fully revealed, I appreciated the attempt to portray some different than we’ve seen before and the design they dreamed up was both inspired and creepy. It worked for me.
And that essentially sums up my experience checking out Nope for the first time…it worked. It gave me what I wanted…and a little bit more. I think that if you appreciate slightly smarter genre fare and have enjoyed Jordan Peele’s previous two films, then you shouldn’t say “Nope” to Nope.