Written by Cassie Jo Ochoa
Nope continues Jordan Peele’s ambitious efforts to tie everything he loves into narratives that speak to some more extensive discussion of culture. Even before the film’s release, he went at length to discuss Nope’s relation to spectacle and what horrors the average person is trained to endure thanks to the powers of the internet. What are humans doing, ignoring instinct and hurtling straight into what will inevitably cause some harm? Peele answers that with a genre film based entirely on the ambition to hunt down the monsters living in the shadows and expose them to the light – with enjoyable but messy results.
As any good western should, the film starts on a quiet horse ranch as OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) deals with the day that changed everything. That’s a bit of a lie, but for clarity, let’s put the prologue on hold for now. Quickly as he and his father (Keith David) are introduced, a freak accident kills Otis Sr. and leaves Haywood Hollywood Horses at significant risk. Six months later, OJ brings in his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) to try and keep the business afloat despite being slowly pushed out by an industry that will favor doing things in a contained, controllable way. Little do they know they’re about to be thrown headfirst into a scientific discovery that could save their ranch – if they get the Oprah shot.
Sci-fi westerns come in various flavors, but they’re generally fun. Instead of taking the west to the skies, Peele brings the science fiction to the ranch and harkens back to some authentic ’90s classics. Nope is an almost perfect blend of horror and wonder that will leave an impression long after the credits roll. The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Tenet and Ad Astra) perfectly complements Peele’s ambition. There are some ridiculous moments in this film, but you never forget exactly how much of a threat it is just off-screen. The performances are excellent, the pacing is pretty good, and the writing is focused more on the story than one-liners…so what exactly is there negative to say about it?
Let’s talk about that prologue – and why it’s a bit of a symptom of what is throwing Nope off balance. Without going into specifics, the opening five minutes are designed to shock and disorient – the Universal logo giving way to a highly lit environment that is slowly revealed to be the site of a tragedy. The significance of this event isn’t revealed until later. Still, the audience will naturally connect to the prologue and its meaning for the characters involved. The problem is…no one in that prologue is named Haywood. The best emotional material in the film does not include the main characters. Sure, the siblings get their moment of emotional backstory, but it falls a bit flat. Without a foothold into who the Haywoods are, it’s tough to care about the moments that aren’t a spectacle. Character archetypes are great, but all the acting talent in the world can’t back up stakes that don’t carry offscreen.
Minor grievances aside, Nope is unlike anything released over the past decade. It’s a bold film that makes people remember what they love and is another feather in the cap for Peele and the argument that original films can make money. Nope is smart enough to let audiences connect the dots in a way that will fuel clickbait film criticism videos for years to come. See it on the big screen.