Jordan Peele's 'Nope' Rejects the Warm Glow of Nostalgia
Though it's packed with nods to the past—and some very cool T-shirts—the filmmaker's latest provocation isn't merely another piece of retro horror.
Watching many modern horror films can feel like walking through a haunted graveyard of references. The rotting corpses of classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, or The Shining threaten to spring from the ground at a moment's notice, often in the form of a winking visual allusion or a self-aware line of dialogue. Sometimes, a character will literally watch the exact slasher the plot is riffing on or wear a vintage look that's meant to serve as a marker of taste. In the case of a franchise like Scream, the in-jokes are part of the fun. On TV, Netflix's '80s-obsessed Stranger Things turbo-charged this trend, weaponizing nostalgia and selling it back to an eager audience in super-sized streaming chunks.
Jordan Peele's latest genre-splicing experiment Nope, a monster movie about two Black horse trainer siblings on the outskirts of Hollywood played by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, feels both keenly aware and slyly skeptical of this exact dynamic. Within the opening minutes, we read a Bible quote, hear the comforting sound of a laugh track, and see the images of Eadweard Muybridge's 1878 cabinet cards "The Horse in Motion." Immediately, the Get Out filmmaker has put scripture, the corny sitcom, and cinema history in conversation. As the plot unfolds, the references become even more specific: a poster for the Sidney Poitier Western Buck and the Preacher, a tangent about SNL cast member Chris Kattan, and the repeated invocation of "the Oprah shot."
And then there's the clothing. Kaluuya's quiet OJ Haywood sports an orange crew hoodie from the set of The Scorpion King, the Mummy spinoff best known for providing Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson with his first starring role. (OJ's father, also a horse trainer, worked on the film.) Palmer's Emerald Haywood, more rebellious and outgoing than her brother, later wears a T-shirt for the noise-rock band The Jesus Lizard. Brandon Perea's electronics store employee Angel sports a shirt for the doom metal group Earth, and alt-rock staples Rage Against the Machine also pop up. Peele and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Tenet) often frame the shirts in shots that make no attempt to obscure the logos or the names of the groups. Instead of feeling like empty cool-cred-chasing, the costuming, courtesy of Alex Bovaird, who did similarly sharp work on HBO's The White Lotus, deepens the experience. It's the best type of costume work: intentional yet believable.
These aren't exactly obscure "deep-cut" references. SNL is one of the most popular and long-running comedy shows on television; Rage Against the Machine is a major festival headliner and a dorm-room poster staple; Oprah is Oprah. There's a strain of admirably unfussy populism that runs through Peele's work. At the same time, the movies that most likely informed the structure and pacing of Nope—Steven Spielberg thrill-rides like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and War of the Worlds—go unremarked upon. This is a UFO movie with no jokes about E.T., The X-Files, or Independence Day in sight. If you were on Twitter this week, you know Peele is a huge John Carpenter fan, but you won't hear the characters going on about the genius of The Thing or They Live. That would break the movie's spell.
This isn't the first time that Peele has used costumes to play a little semiotic game with the audience. In the 1986-set opening sequence of Us, a young girl wears a Michael Jackson "Thriller" shirt, a character detail that's both accurate and evocative. As Peele later explained in an interview with NME, he viewed the shirt as the "perfect symbol" to explore the film's themes. "I think it addresses this idea of the shadow self and when we talk about the collective shadow self, which is what this film is about, it involves an ability for us to ignore the truth and the darker side of ourselves," he said. Months later, he did an entire interview about the film's T-shirts with The New York Times, telling the paper the shirt's represent identity, specifically "outward-facing branding that we present to the world."
In addition to the King of Pop, the opening of Us also featured a character wearing a Black Flag T-shirt. What shirt is Peele wearing in one of the behind-the-scenes Nope photos with Kaluuya? A Black Flag shirt, of course. In one of the group's most famous songs, "TV Party," they mock the couch potato mentality with the following lines: "Don't talk about anything else/We don't want to know/We're dedicated to our favorite shows." They go on to namecheck a number of them. ("Saturday Night Live! Monday Night Football! Jeffersons!") With its blend of satire, terror, and awe, Nope taps into a similar barbed energy, allowing Peele to throw his own blood-soaked TV party for your amusement. Undoubtedly, he gets the last laugh.