Film Review: Ambitious “Nope” Thrills, Despite Thematic Overreach
Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 21st, 2022
Nope (Jordan Peele, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
Cinema has always been spectacle, the joy of images flickering across a screen, brought to life through light and human ingenuity, a magic born in the 19th century that continues to cast a spell to this day, no matter how and where we view them. Before there was a single strip of multiple film frames running through a camera in quick succession, however, there was first photography and then series photography, the latter an art form pioneered by Eadweard Muybridge as he strove to help California robber baron and politician Leland Stanford solve a bet about whether or not all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground when it gallops (they do). Historians have spilled much ink discussing Muybridge and that horse (named Sallie Gardner) but not a whole lot about the Black jockey riding her. Writer/director Jordan Peele (Us) wants that to change.
That’s part of his artistic agenda in Nope, his third feature, though he has a lot else going on, too. Structured as an alien-invasion nail-biter, the movie can be appreciated strictly as a popcorn adventure, filled with chills, thrills, and action galore, but that is by no means all there is. And though it is tempting to accuse Peele of taking on more than his film can handle, ambitions beyond the imperatives of commercial entertainment, as delightful as those may be, should always be celebrated. If one is to fall short, better to do so because the attempt is grand. Nothing ventured and all that.
After a disturbing, elliptical prologue involving a rogue chimpanzee, Nope opens on an image of a Black man astride a horse, and soon into the narrative we learn about Muybridge and the jockey, who here is given the last name Haywood. His descendant, Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David, Good), now runs Hollywood’s only Black-owned stunt-horse business, with a ranch in the distant hills that he maintains with son Otis Jr., known as OJ (Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out). As the two go about their daily routine, there is a sudden downpour of what appears to be hail but turns out to be metal objects like coins and keys. One of the former pierces Otis Sr.’s head, killing him.
Six months later and the introverted OJ struggles to run things on his own, his extroverted sister Emerald, or Em (Keke Palmer, Alice) an occasional help, though she lives in town, far away. Still, after a failed gig, she decides to accompany OJ back to the ranch to pick up some things. Along the way, they stop off at the nearby Jupiter’s Claim, a Western-themed park owned and managed by “Jupe” (Steven Yeun, Minari), a former child actor who bears a direct connection to that chimpanzee we met in the beginning. OJ has been selling off horses to Jupe, one by one, to make ends meet. That turns out to not have been the best idea.
About that chimp. His name was Gordy and he was one of the stars of a family sitcom (featuring a young Jupe), who one day just snapped (as trained adolescent chimps are wont to do), resulting in a bloodbath, to scenes from which we will eventually be treated. His backstory presence in the drama is the biggest question mark, though it seems like Peele is setting up a large-scale meditation on the hubris of so-called superior species and their failure to read the signs of their own destruction. Enter the alien.
Imagine a cross between a jelly fish, manta ray, and sea urchin, crossed with a Basque beret and a Stetson brim, and you’ll have some idea of what to expect. This spaceship, or creature, has apparently been lurking in the area for longer than anyone realizes, and is growing bolder. Those objects falling from the sky, as well as the disappearance of horses, are somehow connected to the alien, as well. Before long, OJ, Em, and Jupe, along with a local video-store employee named Angel (Brandon Perea, American Insurrection) and a grizzled cinematographer named Antlers (Michael Wincott, Forsaken), find themselves caught up in a dangerous game against a lethal foe.
On the most basic level, both in terms of visual design and adrenaline rush, Nope works. Despite some horrific moments, there is also plenty of comedy as relief from the stress of things (the titular word, in some form or another, often uttered by characters in reaction to escalating mayhem). But there are so many layers upon layers that Peele attempts to work in, from Gordy to Muybridge, intersecting interspecies and intraspecies relationships and more, that they inevitably blend into a thematic jumble.
The ending, as spectacular a set piece as it is, further devolves the movie into boilerplate B-movie monster territory, losing what possibilities the chimpanzee subplot had raised. Bang goes the explosion, as decisive a conclusion as there can be, though a pat one. At least we return to that image of a Black man on a horse, a corrective to the way Hollywood has all too often minimized the contributions of people of color, especially in big-budget extravaganzas like this. He may not quite hit a home run, but Peele certainly swings for the fences, and a triple is still a respectable result.