Three films in, Jordan Peele has established himself as an event storyteller. Get Out shocked the cinematic world, winning him the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in the process (not to mention Oscar nominations in Best Director and Best Picture, to boot). Us didn’t have the same awards cache, but cemented him as a “social horror” master and a filmmaker you pay close attention to. Now with Nope, Peele has managed to up the ante. The movie is bigger and in some ways bolder than anything he’s done before, even if there are missteps along the way. The film has an element of Steven Spielberg-esque spectacle to it, which is a new playground Peele’s chosen to frolic in. Regardless of if you like, love, or even find Nope to be a misfire, it’s impossible not to consider this director at the forefront of Hollywood storytelling. No one does metaphors like him.
Nope has a lot of the hallmarks you expect from Peele, with added ambition and spectacle this time around. Not all of it works, but when it does, it has moments that mesmerize. He knows how to craft cinema with a capital C, and it shows. The fact that this mix of science fiction and horror, with ample laughs thrown in, even has room for an element of filmmaking to be a part of the narrative shows that he doesn’t lack for drive. Even when parts of the flick don’t stand tall, others are right there to shoulder the load.
Fear not, nothing I’ll discuss here, plot-wise, is anything the trailers haven’t revealed, preserving Peele’s element of surprise. In a small California town, something is going on. At first, it’s a mysterious event that claims the life of Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), the patriarch of Hayward Ranch, the only black-owned horse ranch serving Hollywood productions. Later, as the events, which impact animals as much or more so than humans, continue, his son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) suspects it wasn’t an accident, but a “bad miracle” of some kind. Struggling to keep the business running, with an offer to sell to neighboring showman and former child star Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) his scatterbrained sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) arrives at their home, only to experience the same thing. The difference? She sees opportunity, hoping for fame and fortune from an honest to goodness video of what must be aliens visiting Earth.
Opting to keep this information close to the vest, Emerald and OJ get surveillance equipment from an electronics store, hoping to capture footage themselves. They seek the “Oprah Shot” that will be undeniable, even if it might be incredibly dangerous. Store employee Angel (Brandon Perea) tags along and proves to be a UFO enthusiast, and eventually they recruit a cinematographer’s help in Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott). Together, they should be able to do this, right? Of course, they don’t fully know or understand what they’re seeking to film, and that will prove deadly.
The duo of Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer are pretty good here, even if I wish we got a bit more character work. There’s enough development that they never feel two-dimensional or anything like that, but you’re left wanting more of their background and personality. At the same time, Kaluuya has a compelling stoicism and Palmer has an infectious manic nature that does paper over that small issue. Their chemistry together, however, is great, highlighting both their similarities and their differences. As siblings, they’re impeccable. Steven Yeun is solid but not quite given enough to do, with the same going for Michael Wincott, while Brandon Perea is forgettable. Supporting players here include the aforementioned Keith David, Barbie Ferreira, Terry Notary, and more, though the focus is squarely on Kaluuya and Palmer.
Filmmaker Jordan Peele goes for spectacle here more than he has previously, with mostly successful results, even if he doesn’t skimp on the metaphors and symbolism. His handling of the various set-pieces verges on flawless, while the comedy almost always lands, as does the horror elements. His directing is as confident as ever, trusting the audience to keep up with the story. With terrific sound design, a reverberating score from Michael Abels, and top notch cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema, it’s a technical wonder. His writing, however, potentially bites off a bit more than he can chew here, sacrificing some needed character work, even if there’s an interesting meta undercurrent running through the picture. Nope throws a lot at you, leaving a fair amount open to interpretation, but at some point, it moves perilously close to overload. The post-screening debates will be fascinating, but a bit more on the table for the audience to engage with on first viewing would have been nice. This is closer to Us than Get Out, at least in that regard. It might not bug you in the slightest, but I felt like it was an element here that, unlike in his prior work, wasn’t a strength, if not quite an outright weakness.
Compared to Get Out and Us, Nope is likely to prove more divisive. Sure, it has Peele’s trademark misdirections, but it shows its hand about midway through, opting to up the ante, as opposed to go in other directions. That may underwhelm some. Others will love it. I fully expect it to be labeled his strongest and weakest flick in equal measure. I’m still figuring out where I landed. It’s undeniably good, and largely great, but just to what degree?
Nope will be a huge hit, and rightly so, but there may well come a day where we realize that Get Out was lightning in a bottle. Even if that was a once in a lifetime achievement, we’ve seen more than enough evidence that Peele is a unique A-list filmmaker. His movies are events and deserve to be treated as such. There isn’t a writer/director out there doing anything quite like what Peele’s got on his mind. Whatever you think you’re in store for here, you’re both right and wrong, which is part of the fun. Avoid spoilers and enjoy!