What is Jordan Peele’s “Nope” about? Well, lots of things. Most likely.
The good folks at AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9 weren’t too happy with the knot Jordan Peele tied them on a matinee last Thursday. A screening of the director’s new film, the alien horror Nope, might as well have been an open fire hydrant amid the East Coast heatwave. But this end? The question “is that it?” was lobbed in unison (and with hella vex) from multiple rows as the screen faded to black. Granted, this answer wasn’t exactly an aggregation of Rotten Tomatoes (Nope is increasing the score there). However, it does point to something hovering over the entire proceedings, and we’re not talking about saucers yet.
If there’s one common question in all of Peele’s work behind the camera so far, it’s the oldest in the filmmaking book: What exactly is this movie about? For example, you may have heard of get out initially via word of mouth in 2017 or were attracted by We two years later by that sinister sample of Luniz in the trailer. Either way, by the end of the opening scene, the potential meaning behind all those glowing on-screen images probably blew your mind. A discerning moviegoer has suspicions or theories or a broader cultural understanding of the question posed in either film, but there is an answer in each – a respective stop at the end of the line. The real gold may ultimately reside elsewhere. Endings aren’t everything here. There’s a little Cormac McCarthy who says to himself, “There’s not as much joy in the tavern as there is on the road to it”, which we find in both films. What is indisputable is that there is only one road.
But Nope is as stubborn and unruly as Lucky, his star thoroughbred. The film is more of a labyrinth than a direct path. Apparently it follows two siblings, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer), mourning the sudden death of their father, Otis (Keith David), who is fatally injured at the start of the film when pocket change falls. from the sky. The family descends from the first subject ever filmed: the uncredited black man who sat on the stallion in Eadweard Muybridge’s real life The horse in motion. Emerald and OJ finally realize that the deadly shard has fallen from an alien beast lurking like a cloud above their ranch in Agua Dulce, a few miles from Hollywood. They claim the discovery and spend the rest of the film trying to catch him on camera.
Nope is a prettier film than its predecessors, with a noticeably bigger budget, but its most surprising feature is its lack of commitment to a single enduring thesis. For that, the film is worse in some places, better in others, and absolutely distinct from Peele’s earlier efforts. The director said he’s obsessed with the genre of “giving audiences what they want from the movies” that defined his childhood, hits like Extraterrestrial, the brilliant, and half a dozen Spielberg films. In Nope, Peele follows suit but also subverts the established pattern. For every stunning setting and familiar arc, he adds more than anyone asked for. In an age of mainstream banality, the author has created a show that is utterly breathtaking. It works because it confuses.
Nope opens with Nahum 3:6, the seventh book of the Old Testament, in which God warns the people of Nineveh, “I will throw upon you abominable filth, and I will make you vile, and I will give you a sight.” It is a table dresser and also a herring. A flurry of references to performances gone wrong intersperse the narrative: there’s a brutal primate attack at the center of a fictional sitcom that nods to a real event; the doomed attempts of one of the show’s only surviving stars (played by an angsty Steven Yeun) to make a new cross-species pact with the alien visitor; and the horses brought to film sets and amphitheaters that are thrown at the first sign of heaviness.
The crux of the story is how people try to commodify the saucer despite its indomitable and violent bent. Treat it as an attraction rather than a predator, and you risk being swallowed whole. But the attraction goes beyond trade. It’s hard not to see each of these characters’ pursuit of the creature as attempts to wrap their own personal horrors – the death of a father, a traumatic childhood episode, a consuming appetite for fame – in the beast itself; using this meet their needs and their wounds. To use a Peele-ism, Nope is attached to an age-old lineage of entertainment as a way to streamline true American horror. The pain hides in plain sight. The boundary between the various justifications aimed at by the film and the appeal of real spores as TMZthe viral police filming videos, the very idea of the western, and even the blackface minstrel is so thin it’s non-existent.
Which makes Nope stickier is that it might as well be a commentary on something like spiritual mindfulness, but in the sense of a pop psychologist, Eckhart Tolle in a way. You know, not everything is meant to be consumed, being present is in itself a gift, etc. “That dream you’re chasing, where you’re on top of the mountain, all eyes on you?” It’s the dream you never wake up from,” an Ahab-ish cinematographer warns the Haywoods before joining their chase at Agua Dulce. There are times when it’s tempting to believe that Nope is really about nature and our exploitative relationship with it, like the scene where the beast is enraged by being tricked into eating a metal horse. Can a film with a budget of more than 60 million dollars be anti-capitalist? Palmer described the film as “a character-driven play about two siblings”, which is true and believable, but she then ended her quote by adding “at the same time, it’s a social commentary, a movie besides”.
There will probably be a lot of hand waving about whether this formless does Nope imperfect or worthwhile work. Medley is an acquired taste. Plus, there’s the question that follows all of Peele’s creations: is it better than get out? Nope perhaps bolder, especially in a time when everything is so meticulously tested and engineered to cause the same synaptic bursts. That doesn’t make the movie better or worse, though. What we have here is nothing more or less than a fulfilled director, eyes wandering beyond the present into the past and the future. “My biggest fear is to one day reach the point where I see a lot of artists…where they stop growing,” Peele said as he still donned wigs for Viacom sketches. In Nope he tries to carve out the unseen from altered peaks. He makes a complete mess of things. It’s heartbreaking, a sight to behold.