'Nope' Is the UFO Event of the Summer
Jordan Peele's new film shows that, once again, the singular auteur has a lot on his mind.
Filmmakers love making films about filmmaking. It's a bit of narcissism taking hold with the hope that holding up a mirror to their industry will reveal something deeper. Filmmakers also love to see themselves in films. It's part of the pitch of Haywood's Hollywood Horses, the business at the center of Jordan Peele's new film, Nope, out July 22. Keke Palmer, as Emerald Haywood—vibrantly spouting the lines that her father, Otis Sr. (Keith David), used on sets—connects her legacy to the very first motion picture: Eadweard Muybridge's photographs of a Black jockey riding a horse.
Peele has made an alien movie about moviemaking, but he doesn't focus on directors or actors. His protagonists, Emerald and her brother, Otis Jr., aka OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), are Black horse trainers. They work below the line and live outside Los Angeles' city limits. Their family's enterprise is based in Agua Dulce, a part of California between Santa Clarita and Lancaster more desert rural than tinsel. By using this as his way in to tell a story about Hollywood, image-making, animal instinct, and, super-scary extraterrestrials, Peele has already made something thrillingly unique. Nope is an experience that's creepy, wriggling its way under your skin, raucous, and thoughtful in all the right ways. It's a spectacle—the very word is used in the threatening Bible verse, Nahum 3:6, that flashes on screen in the first minutes—about the human need for spectacle.
It seems with each progressive film, Peele, who established himself as a preeminent directorial voice with 2017's Get Out, has allowed his work to get more thematically abstract while at the same time leaning deeper into his genre obsessions. Nope has so much to tease out that you can be thinking about it for days, but also delivers the exhilaration of a theme park ride. That designation can be used as a pejorative in blockbusters these days, but Nope embodies the kind of unstoppable sensation you long for at an amusement park, all the while slyly sneaking in a satire that seems to speak to Peele's own anxieties about existing within the machine.
After opening on a brief, haunting image of a bloodied chimpanzee walking around an abandoned sitcom soundstage, Peele introduces his audiences to the Haywoods. Otis Sr. is counseling his son about their latest job when the whirring horse walker stops, and debris starts falling from the sky. A quarter pierces his eye, killing him. In the wake of the elder Haywood's death, his son is trying to keep the ranch afloat while Emerald is more interested in furthering her own multi-hyphenate career. To make ends meet, OJ has been selling horses to a nearby theme park, Jupiter's Claim, run by former child star Ricky "Jupe" Park (Steven Yeun, with a huckster glint in his eye), best known for his role in the Kid Sheriff series of movies. Jupe has turned nostalgia for his childhood into a whitewashed Gold Rush attraction, pushing down any trauma (and there's a lot) for a quick buck.
And then, out in the dusty zone where horse farms abut nothing but car dealerships and empty space, something strange starts to happen. The horses whinny in terror and disappear into the night while power goes out and cell phones go dead. Sound is sucked out of the air except for when the missing horses' neighs echo from the skies long after their corporeal forms have disappeared. An unidentified flying object zips in between the clouds. Convinced they've encountered visitors from another planet, Emerald and OJ see a way out of their financial straits. If they can get the perfect shot of it, they can make money off this horror. Figuring out just what the UFO is turns out to be useful, but ultimately ancillary to the Haywood siblings' ultimate goal. They don't want to identify it, they want to capture it on camera.
Each of Peele's three films have yielded imagery that's instantly iconic, from the menacing tea cup of Get Out to the red jumpsuits and scissors of Us. In Nope, the indelible image—shot by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema—is the cartoon-eyed inflatable tube people, themselves an alien structure, blowing in the wind. But elsewhere, Peele's designs are deceptively simple, at least initially. The UFO looks like, well, a UFO. There's an evocation of the classic gray aliens of thousands of movies and TV shows before Nope. When Michael Abels' score revs up, it evokes Gunsmoke as heard through the Twilight Zone. It's that eerie sense of familiarity that makes Nope all the more spooky.
Kaluuya, too, is playing a sort of stoic cowboy archetype. OJ is largely quiet, his face hidden behind a Carhartt baseball cap. Kaluuya can be a fiery performer, but here, he's internal, facing off against a potentially world-ending threat with the calm of someone who has broken unruly horses his entire life. In their second collaboration, Peele once again tells worlds of stories with Kayuula's eyes, using his indelible talent for simply looking as a plot point. Palmer's Emerald, meanwhile, is bouncy. She says whatever is on her mind, hits every joke she can possibly make, charms strangers, and doles out flirty compliments to a random woman in an electronics store. The siblings could not be more different, but they are innately simpatico—you can feel their connection, the values with which they were raised, in their gestures. As horse wranglers, they are the unseen forces keeping movie sets humming; in Nope, they are thrust into the spotlight, but use the same techniques they always have to fulfill their quest.
Like Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust before it, Nope manages to be both a cautionary tale about the Hollywood mindset—the desire to turn tragedy into pageant and warp living things into dancing toys for our enjoyment—and a big summer popcorn movie that is genuinely awe-inspiring. It's more proof that even if Peele is driven by an antsy sense of unease working within the system, there's absolutely no one doing it like him.