*FULL SPOILERS AHEAD*
For above-ground earth creatures such as ourselves, the open sky is kind of unavoidable, and if you live in the Caribbean as I do, there’s usually plenty of moving clouds in those skies.
We might not have known as children a cumulonimbus from a nimbostratus, still might not as adults actually; but we knew and know that the darker heavier unbroken clouds portended rain, and the ones that were lighter and made smaller shapes against the unerring blue signaled sunny days and play. Sometimes that play even involved contemplating those clouds, noting that this one was in the shape of a baby goat, that one a fluffy puppy, and over there, hares leapfrogging. Like I imagine an etch-a-sketch works, those shapes never stayed. In Nope, Jordan Peele’s latest, it is the unmoving cloud that finally clues our UFO skygazers in to the nature of the danger they face.
I don’t do a lot of movie reviews here on the blog – certainly compared to book reviews – but after seeing wrong take after wrong (of the negative or lukewarm variety), I had to tag in.
Though I’ve only seen Nope once, I said after that single viewing that it was my second favourite Jordan Peele film after Get Out. True, I have not seen the third of his films, his second, Us, but this is more than just ranking by default. Nope is an all caps YEP.
The “slow” first act is one of my favourite parts. The routines of horse life settling me in to the space I need to be. The images of not one but two Black men Keith David (who does not get mentioned nearly enough in reviews I’ve seen) and Daniel Kaluuya (who plays his son) on horseback in a setting from which the lore (cowboy movie after cowboy movie) has all but erased Black horsemen despite the reality (Smithsonian: one in four cowboys were Black) added depth of meaning for me as a Black person.
The silent character-and-plot-building stir both curiousity and genuine interest. I use silent deliberately because Daniel’s OJ (Otis Jr.) is not an effusive guy by any stretch and yet in that first sequence we see how much he loves working with horses, respects and loves his dad, whom he loses in a freak ‘accident’, forcing him to step in to shoes his nature hasn’t really prepared him to fill. To do what his father does, or did, well, he needs the other half of the equation, his sister, played by Keke Palmer, who is built for the charismatic, outward facing, almost aggressively verbal (i.e. she talks a lot!) Emerald. Emerald is a shade of green by the way, and Keke’s Emerald wears many shades of it in this film, reinforcing that nothing is by accident in a Jordan Peele film.
Let’s talk about the freak accident for a minute. OJ and his dad hear…something…(props to the sound design in this film), and before either knows what, OJ’s dad has slumped dead from a penny through the brain – shown not told – and the horse has a bloodied key in its backside. That a big animal would have a small injury and not rear up, as I’ve seen suggested the horse should have, is not baffling to me (we are biggish animals and sometimes we don’t even notice our small injuries). Also, a Black family accepting but not quite believing the official narrative (debris from a passing plane, which OJ admits quietly to his sister he never quite bought, because someone you trust is who you would whisper that to if you were not one to talk up and push back which we’ve seen OJ is not), well, it all tracks with me. What doesn’t track is any notion that they were incurious about it – especially OJ who was there, and who is grieving the loss of his father even as he tries to carry on, ineptly as we’ll discover, the horse ranch that his father built. It’s important to remember here that Peele is writing from the point of view of a Black man in America, even if his films are ‘genre’ films that can be appreciated by all.
It should’ve been clear from Get Out that race is important to Peele thematically. In Nope, he makes a key visual motif of the first moving picture captured and how it erased the name of the rider, a Black man, who is OJ and Emerald’s fictional great, great, great grandfather (fictional not because the rider isn’t real but because this is a movie and OJ and Emerald aren’t, but Black erasure in Hollywood surely is and that’s the point).
Peele is known for his symbolism and metaphors; you can enjoy his films without reading all that much in to it, but the reading is there if you want. Nothing is quite as it seems nor necessarily means what it seems to mean. I also believe that character point of view is important in his work. It certainly is in that Gordie segment and that damned over dissected, in my view, standing shoe. The flashback sequence with the TV chimp Gordie rampaging on the set and killing his human co-stars is, not surprisingly, the sequence that horror fans seem to have glommed on to, though many I’ve seen have questioned what this has to do with the main story. In this sequence, which we see in full when Adult Jupe (Steven Yeun) spaces out in that office scene with his wife, who seems to ground him, Gordie spares Jupe. Jupe is an Asian kid adopted in to a white family on a TV show. Sidebar, this has been described as a 90s style sitcom but it feels more like the 80s sitcoms that were so popular when I was growing up – Different Strokes, Webster; happy cross cultural adoptions generally, interspecies even, such as Alf. In any case, we see the rampage largely as Jupe experiences it including, I believe, the illusion of the shoe standing on edge. If in terror situations we fixate on someone or something, that shoe could be Jupe’s sort of dissociative way of processing what happened to him – a way of pushing the terror away. Something we’ve seen he is prone to do. Adult Jupe, who now runs a Western-themed amusement park that capitalizes on his childhood fame, talks about the SNL sketch rather than the incident itself when asked about the Gordy onset rampage by Emerald, after her discovery of the room of related memorabilia from which he profits. Jupe is stunted not just by his childhood stardom – which we’ve seen in real life can be a thing with former child stars – but by the rampage that he survived and in so doing decided he was special and/or had some special bond with Gordie the chimp. There’s no denying that the chimp saw some kinship, note the fistbump and the not killing him, perhaps sensing that they were both in their own way being exploited for their otherness. But Jupe thinks he can replicate that special bond-ability to the creature in the sky and similarly capitalize on it. And, just, Nope.
The plot and thematic connection is this traumatized man trying to create spectacle by coraling a wild creature, though he knows better than most the peril of that path. He and his fated customers are all eaten (in a truly horrific scene) by what is essentially a wild animal in the sky. Meanwhie, it is a man who is the opposite of spectacle, OJ, and who understands that you don’t tame these wild beasts so much as make a pact with them, who realizes that you should not look the thing in the eye (something we know can make animals, even your pet dog, irritable; something we saw spook the horse onset in the first act) – no, Jupe did not look Gordie in the eye (he was fixated on the shoe for most of the rampage and there was always something between them even when Gordie approached and they were looking at each other).
The other part that seems to confound is the in-universe cinematographer (played by Michael Wincott) exposing himself to the creature in order to get the perfect shot, as if he hasn’t been shown (literally) to be both odd and obsessed with animal imagery and getting the perfect shot. His most direct parallel to me is Quint from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the experienced but odd (perhaps due to both trauma and obsession) shark hunter. I don’t remember how but I do remember that Quint dies hunting the shark, and I’m inclined to believe that he had a similar lack of self-preservation in service to the hunt. If the ride-a-long electronics store guy nursing a broken heart and a lack of boundaries (because he’s lonely, right?) Angel (played by an enjoyable Brandon Perea) is any kind of avatar for the audience, it is explicitly in his reaction to oddities like Quint-too (actually, Antlers Holst) who helps them troubleshoot how to capture the creature on film while being weird as fuck the whole time. They’ve got a good enough shot but there is always a better shot to be had, at all costs, even his life. Yes, I think he’s that obsessed.
Consider this quote from actual Nope cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema who served as his own camera operator, while shooting with a shoulder-mounted IMAX camera, which, I understand is not light (though he says, not as heavy as people might think): “I live by the philosophy that as cinematographers, it’s not our job to make things convenient; it’s our job make the difficult and the inconvenient doable so that we can achieve shots that are extra special. …In the end, the most visceral cinema is very much about intimacy, about being in the middle of things. For me, it’s important to get in there, get closer, go further, be it and live it.”
Is it really so hard to understand the motivations of an Antlers Holst?
I mean, I could have done without TMZ motorcycle guy (mostly because I reject TMZ) but even I can understand what his arrival does as an obstacle to the carefully timed plan that adds to the tension, and that it makes sense for the spectacle-obsessed who seem to be everywhere to appear here at the most inconvenient time; I mean it’s what they do, and it reinforces the theme of our obsession with spectacle at the exclusion of all else, including real human connection.
And real human connection is this movie’s main selling point for me. Like how the movie satisfyingly integrates Angel, not as a type but as a person in need of connection, into the group. In the same way that something feels off about Jupe because of his trauma and act, Nope creates an arc in which we see the siblings move through disconnect to literally eye-to-eye contact, “I see you, I got you”. Some say the pay off wasn’t earned. I disagree. Yes, there is irritation between them from the jump but there is also affection, and yes her being there only makes rawer the abrasions but it also means that they are there being with each other, re-learning each other. We get the sense that that hasn’t been the case since the trauma of Emerald’s childhood, losing her horse to her dad’s ambitions, and certainly not since his death (yes, she’s there, barely, for the presentations, but she didn’t even know OJ had been selling off the horses to Jupe, and she would get what a big deal that is even if he plans to buy them back). Here they are together, clashing (duh, siblings) but also sharing intimate moments (as they try to suss out what they’re dealing with). Even revisiting their childhood with only one extended piece of dialogue, really, between them (probably the realest thing about sibling relationships in which apologies come with a gesture, if at all). Their worry for each other when placed in danger is real and palpable, as is their joy – those hand slaps. The moment of him making a decision that gives her a chance feels very earned after all of that admittedly quiet and some what subtextual build-up. And no I don’t think her feeding the giant big boy to the creature while getting the snap of a lifetime and its demise was part of the plan – I think that was Emerald innovating after the plan went fubar. We’ve seen OJ during the plan wowing the others by innovating on the fly, so we know intuition is in play. As far as she knew, her brother had sacrificed himself so that she could survive, and survive she did – with a bonus. Of course, I could be wrong about all of this – as wrong as every critic I’m responding to with this piece. But what matters to me here is the character work. I love what both Daniel and Keke do with their roles together and apart – he’s got embodying and making a character interesting without needing to be verbose, or even verbal, down (though we’ve seen he can do that in Judas and the Black Messiah); and Keke, though she likes being a jill-of-all-trades, and probably had to be in colourist Hollywood, shows she has the range to add shades to a character that could easily be one-note but isn’t. For anyone who thinks Daniel’s acting was dull in this, explain why his quiet and firm delivery of “nope” in that truck was one of the movie moments that got a big reaction in my theatre – yes, the night and the hovering danger, but, also the character build to that point and the pitch perfect delivery.
Other questions, I do think scarred girl is there all the time, another part of the memorabilia Jupe monetizes; it’s a “creepy cowboy theme park” that’s its purpose and this corralling of Jean Jacket, the thing in the sky, by feeding it horses is just the newest spectacle (one, frankly, that the people who see it probably don’t think is real because we know the magician hasn’t really cut the girl in half); different directors use text on screen in different ways (see Scorcese’s The Irishman for the death cards that come with each character introduction) and here Peele is using them as title cards for each chapter or act, and, yes, he names them for the horses/creatures featured in each section and if I saw it again, I could probably find some thematic reason why they work as well; you know who else cameod in this film, 80s TV star Donna Mills but you don’t see me crying about her being underutilized; and about the not-an-alien evolved enough to shapeshift (I think you mean an animal who knows how to camouflage itself like many animals do instinctively) not being able to tell that the thing it ate at the end was a plastic inflatable, I have only to say, your dog that you buy all that premium food for, left to its own devices, will eat its own shit (it’s an animal, it does animal things; like all animals, including us, it’s both smart and stupid).
Watching the moon in the sky last night, how beautiful it was and how impossible it would be to capture that beauty, I couldn’t help remembering how beautifully shot this film is. Its shots of the night sky made said sky seem both magnificent and menacing. And Peele’s directorial choices, the scene of the blood and rain and likely other viscera being shit down, literally, on the house but first experienced from inside through sound and fear before allowing us to actually see it, are assured and effective. Is it a perfect horror film, no, but it’s a damn good sci-fantasy-action-drama.
I’ll end with this other ridiculous question I saw, why reveal the creature’s true form near the end? What a glorious reveal by the way – and that’s the answer. Jaws laid the template; it’s the unseen that gets your blood pumping and hopefully when they do the reveal, you’re so hot you’re not seeing something molded of rubber or fiberglass or even created on a computer but the stuff the movie has primed you to believe is your worst nightmare. Why would you reveal it earlier? Especially when you’re playing with the language of sci-fi and psyching us out with its typical UFO form only to give us something with creature design so angelic we can barely stand to look at it. But do, because, after all, this is spectacle.