Writer/director Jordan Peele’s latest film starts out with a biblical quote that can be summarized as follows: “If y’all don’t knock it off, I’m gonna hurl feces at you.” – God
It’s a bit more nuanced than that, but you get the idea.
For a fairly funny and completely oddball film, “Nope” seethes with righteous anger. It is furious at how the entertainment industry devours and then regurgitates people, particularly those from marginalized communities. It admonishes how we are spectacle-obsessed addicts who won’t count an experience as valid until others can see that we’ve experienced something. It detests our cruelty to animals, our ignorance of history, our reflexive consumerization. What’s not to love about all that it hates?
After an ominous opening that sees Otis Haywood Sr (Keith David) inexplicably murdered by the sky, Otis Jr (Daniel Kaluuya) tries to keep the family business afloat. Going by OJ, much to the consternation of a blonde actress, the heir of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses has been forced to sell off much of his dad’s equine assets. He’s been offloading them to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who now runs a nearby Western-themed tourist trap. Jupe’s fall from Hollywood grace is an apeshit story best left unspoiled. OJ’s sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), very much wants to honor her heritage but also doggedly insists on actually being her own person. Having been patriarchally pushed to the side during her childhood, she isn’t burdened by the same invisible hand of responsibility crushing her soul.
Then OJ and Em realize there’s a UFO kinda just hanging out over their house.
As such revelations are prone to do, that changes things. With the help of Angel (Brandon Perea), an installation expert from an electronics store, the siblings attempt to record the alien money shot. Subsequent events are only slightly more disgusting than that sounds. They recruit the gravel-voiced cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) to capture indisputable proof of extraterrestrial life. Realizations about the nature of the alien presence slam into thematic groundwork midair, parachuting to a resolution that blissfully, boldly, brilliantly occurs in broad daylight. What is seen sure as hell can’t be unseen, and what it symbolizes deserves rabid discussion.
For the heaping helpings of praised piled Peele’s way, his deft touch in building characters often gets overlooked. Kaluuya’s OJ is a terse, simmering pile of internal strife. We don’t get (or need) flashbacks to blowups with his father or repetitive mistreatment on movie sets to understand his mounting frustration. Like the performer who plays her, Palmer’s Em is a dynamo. She’s so impossibly charismatic as to be immediately forgiven by characters and audiences alike for any misstep or negligence. Even Angel, who could have been a throwaway plot contrivance or minor comedic outlet, somehow becomes a fully realized figure.
Then there’s Antlers Holst… He may not be a director, but he is a clear stand-in for the aging white auteurs determined to cling to their celluloid until the bitter end. His arc may not be intended to feel like a thumb inserted into Scorsese’s eye, but it is at least a tweak of Nolan’s nose, a nod that says “Even you’re a genius for what you do, you’re a part of the problem you think you’re so much better than.”
All this, and we can’t even talk about the third-act spoilers.
How thrilling it is that Peele’s third film is his weirdest, that he refuses to abandon social critiques that have only grown more ambitious in their scope. He certainly isn’t saying a myriad of things that haven’t been said elsewhere before, but they haven’t been articulated in this pattern, with this much mischievous phantasmagoria, with this much terrifying whimsy.
“Nope” is impeccably acted, meticulously paced, and resplendent with some of the boldest visual nonsense in ages. Peele’s incarnation of “The Twilight Zone” may not have caught fire, but his ability to leverage the sensibilities of Serling into mainstream fiction continues that franchise’s legacy far better than any streaming TV reboot. More please, and weirder still?
Grade = A
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Charles Pulliam-Moore at The Verge says “While ‘Nope’ — Peele’s third feature with Universal — definitely runs on the distressing, disorienting energy his projects have become known for, it also feels like the director’s first movie that’s actually about filmmaking as a thrilling and terrifying art form.”
Alissa Wilkinson at Vox says “it functions at least a little bit as a warning, or maybe a prophecy, or a call for a reboot, or a reminder to care about what, or who, gets our attention.”
Aisha Harris at NPR says “It’s also significant to note how Peele playfully speaks to Black audiences and their frequent responses to horror movies through the clever title and OJ and Emerald’s actions – like Regina Hall’s ever-skeptical Brenda in the ‘Scary Movie’ franchise, these characters are wary and smart about situations that are obviously ominous. “Nope” isn’t just a phrase, it’s a way of survival.”