Why Gordy the Chimpanzee Is the Most Upsetting Part of 'Nope'

The chimp that mauls a sitcom set is seemingly disconnected from the central plot of Jordan Peele's new movie, but the scenario gets at everything the director is trying to say.

nope steven yeun
Universal Pictures

There's a photo of myself that's etched in my brain from childhood. I'm sitting on a sitcom set couch curled up next to a baby chimpanzee, giggling as the ape leans on me. It's a happy image, but one that curdled almost immediately when Jordan Peele's new movie Nope began.

Before we even see a single frame of footage, audio from a (seemingly bad) '90s-style sitcom plays, its lame jokes echoing with a studio audience laughing. Then Peele cuts to the disaster that unfolds: The risers are bare, with jackets and bags people left behind while fleeing strewn on the seats. A girl's body lays unmoving on the ground. It's unclear if she's dead or badly injured. One of her shoes has been removed from her foot and stands up straight. A chimp nudges her foot as if to check if she's still alive. His mouth and arms are bloody.

That chimp is Gordy, the most horrifying creation in Peele's UFO spectacular—scarier than the otherworldly visitor making horses disappear. Gordy, acted in mocap by Terry Notary, is also Peele's most elusive addition to his narrative. His saga is told outside the plot, but is thematically central, sure to prompt endless theorizing. Gordy, in some ways, is what Peele's entire film hinges on—the notion that not every animal can be tamed for human amusement.

The audience is left stewing in those initial images for a while before we get the full Gordy story. The primate was the chimpanzee star of a sitcom called Gordy's Home starring Ricky "Jupe" Park, the former child actor played by Steven Yeun. Ricky now runs a theme park called Jupiter's Claim in Agua Dulce, a rural area north of Santa Clarita far outside of Los Angeles, capitalizing on his success from a movie called Kid Sheriff. While nostalgia for Kid Sheriff is how Ricky markets himself, Gordy's Home is his most infamous work. That's because during the second season of the show, in the middle of a scene celebrating the ape's birthday, Gordy heard the pop of a balloon and snapped. He mauled Ricky's costars while Ricky hid, terrified, under a table. When Peele finally gives the audience the full flashback, we see the extent of the destruction. After Gordy has seemingly come to, almost confused by the destruction he caused, he moves toward Ricky hand outstretched for an "exploding fistbump"—a move Ricky claims he invented. Just as Ricky reaches back, Gordy is shot in the head.

Nope gordy
Universal Pictures

Yeun, in the present day, gives an extraordinary performance of someone burying their trauma in a hilariously grim way. He keeps a room full of Gordy's merch in the park, which he charges exorbitant fees for tourists to see. When Emerald and OJ Haywood (Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya) visit him in his office to discuss selling their family's horses to his theme park, he brags about how SNL did a Gordy sketch where Chris Kattan, of Mr. Peepers fame, played Gordy. Kattan, according to Ricky, was great. He's Kattan, after all. Yeun sells a nightmare as a joke, only briefly allowing the trauma to peek through his eyes.

So what does Gordy have to do with the UFO that has been visiting Agua Dulce, scooping up the Haywood's horses? Nothing and everything. Like OJ and Emerald, Ricky is aware of the otherworldly presence and has been using the Haywood equines to lure it with plans for a stage show. Except what Ricky doesn't realize is that it's not a spacecraft, but an organism, one that's feeding. When Lucky, one of OJ's steeds, refuses to come out of the pen and be bait, the alien—which the Haywood siblings eventually name Jean Jacket, after one of their old horses—decides to suck up Ricky and his entire audience into its gullet. It's Gordy all over again, except this time there's no emerging unscathed as Ricky did before.

Nope is preoccupied with the idea of entertainment and what humans do to entertain themselves. The Haywoods work in Hollywood as horse trainers—good ones who are respectful of their animals. In one of the first scenes, OJ is on a set where his warnings go ignored, and is fired when the horse kicks upon seeing itself in a mirror thanks to a careless crew member. We never fully understand why the popping balloon sound set Gordy off, but arguably, unlike a horse, a chimp was never meant to be tamed and put in front of a crowd to mug for the cameras. (The shoe standing on end suggests that there is possibly something supernatural going on, but the more pedestrian explanation for Gordy's behavior is the more unsettling.)

The Greek tragedy that is Gordy harkens back to real-life stories of chimps who worked in the entertainment industry. The most famous example is Travis, a chimp actor who eventually would famously maul Charla Nash, a friend of his owner. The chimp I was seated next to was named Tonka; a chimp named Tonka, who appeared in films as a juvenile, recently made news when he was found alive after his now-owner faked his death to keep him in her care instead of turning him over to a sanctuary. In each of these tales, humans anthropomorphize and condescend to creatures that can turn volatile at a snap of a finger, or, in Gordy's case, the burst of a balloon. Ricky spots a UFO and sees something that can fit into his circus. He thinks he can make it play by his rules—but it won't. He should have realized what could happen given his experiences with Gordy, but the hazard doesn't register.

When it dawns on OJ that the saucer is not a vessel but an animal itself, he realizes that the way to capture it on camera is to try and break it like an unruly bronco. Don't look it in the eye. Don't humanize it. It's something to be wrangled, not charmed. You have to fear it, the way the cast of Gordy's Home should have feared Gordy. In the end, Emerald uses a balloon—an inflatable cartoon version of Jupe that serves as Jupiter's Claim's mascot—to defeat the alien. The kind of item that turned Gordy monstrous is used to quell a new beast. 

I think back to that picture, which my mom dug up on my request after I saw Nope—a baby human and a baby chimp seemingly enjoying each other's company. But we are not the same. The chimp had been put in those overalls, treated like a kid for a laugh, likely unaware that its life was product for reasons beyond his conception.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.