There’s a fine line between homage and ripoff, and through his first two films as a director, Jordan Peele has stayed squarely on the side of homage, with Get Out evoking Hitchcock and Us eliciting comparisons to John Carpenter and Philip Kaufman. The man truly does his homework on his productions, tipping his hat to the greats who came before him while also adding his own unique interpretations on classic horror and suspense tropes.
In particular, he has an uncanny ability to tie the terror to universal, lived-in experiences, especially through popular media and newsworthy events. One of the largest bits of fun in Us was the way he linked everything to “Hands Across America.” And when it came to Get Out, he was able to depict the everyday paranoia felt by black people all across this country in a way that audiences of every race and creed could understand. I remember as my friends and I were exiting the theatre overhearing one person referring to the opening scene where Lakeith Stanfield is abducted by Caleb Landry Jones by commenting, “I wonder if that’s how Trayvon [Martin] felt.” Peele has a singular skill when it comes to finding ways for the audience to engage with his work, and it’s fascinating to watch, both as entertainment and as a meta social experiment.
His third feature, Nope, is no different. Peele is now 3-for-3 when it comes to top notch genre work, this time focusing on TV and film as the conduits for his chills, and displaying techniques akin to Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone (several scenes feel like they wouldn’t be out of place in Natural Born Killers, for example), and especially Steven Spielberg. If Get Out was his take on Hitchcock, and Us his version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, then Nope is his Jaws, and it’s fucking fantastic.
Just like that 1975 blockbuster, the trick lies in giving us hints of the monster and the threat it represents rather than just bombarding us with it. More importantly, that classic wasn’t just about a killer shark, but the corrupt influences willing and able to either ignore or exploit the situation for their own gain. So too is the case with Nope, as Peele indicts mass media influence while also using it as a tool for mankind’s salvation. And just for good measure, he throws in some brilliantly nuanced commentary on the environment and dispels a genre stereotype or two.
The main story concerns siblings “OJ” (Otis Jr.) and “Em” (short for Emerald) Haywood, who own and operate a ranch outside of Los Angeles that trains horses for use in the entertainment industry (side note: in this movie featuring fictitious animal wranglers, whatever the actual animal wranglers got paid, it can’t have been enough, because they went above and beyond here). They’re played by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer. The pair claim to be descendants of the nameless jockey in the famous The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge, one of the first zoetrope motion pictures, if not THE first, and as such have had “skin in the game” since the very beginning of the film industry. However, the ranch has fallen on hard times since the death of their father, Otis Sr. (the always wonderful Keith David) in a freak accident where debris fell from the sky, which also injured one of the horses.
The central conflict between the two is masterfully established, with both sides having pros and cons in their approaches to various situations. OJ is fastidious to a fault, but nobly believes in preserving his family’s business and legacy, doing the hard work necessary to keep things afloat. Em is somewhat flaky and perhaps clings too tightly to a Hollywood dream for herself that likely won’t come true, but when it comes down to brass tacks, she’s fully committed to getting the job done. It’s a fantastic dynamic the two share, and a real credit to Peele’s writing and directing skill, because both characters are flawed yet valid, their personalities incompatible on the surface but never truly in conflict, and their loyalty to one another cannot be denied when push comes to shove. It also doesn’t hurt that Kaluuya and Palmer give absolutely stellar performances, eschewing any form of horror movie cliché in favor of genuine human emotion, logic, and decision-making within context.
With the ranch struggling and industry work hard to come by, OJ finds himself forced to sell some of the horses to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun gets better and better every time I see him), a former child actor who runs a tourist trap Old West-style amusement park. He’s the focus of the supplementary story, as he starred in a fictional 90s sitcom called Gordy’s Home, which was cancelled after Gordy, a chimpanzee, went berserk and maimed several members of the cast and crew. Despite this, Jupe felt a kinship with the chimp, and always wondered if it would have spared him had authorities not intervened. As such, he’s the cautionary character in the film’s core thematic point about whether man can interfere with nature, and if a predator can be reasoned with.
OJ eventually wants to buy the horses back from Jupe, but he says that’s impossible, and even counteroffers to buy the ranch outright. OJ is suspicious of Jupe’s motivations, but consideration is put on hold when a mysterious power outage and weather event spooks the remaining horses into an almost violent flight of self-preservation. Recognizing the circumstances from when his father was killed, OJ notices something resembling a UFO during the incident, inspiring him and Em to try to get photographic evidence of alien life. First they try a bunch of tech, reluctantly recruiting a conspiracy enthusiast at the local electronics store (I won’t say which one, because they don’t pay me) named Angel (Brandon Perea from The OA) and reaching out to a filmmaker called Antlers Holst (veteran character actor Michael Wincott), who films on a rotary camera on film without the need for electricity.
The quest to discover the truth about what appears to be a flying saucer is some of Peele’s finest work as a director to date. He plays with light and sound in tremendous ways, using darkness as a tool rather than a crutch like so many other modern films. In far too many movies these days, scenes are shot in the dark to obscure how terrible the special effects are. This was particularly egregious in Eternals and Godzilla: King of the Monsters among others. Here, however, Peele looks at the night sky as part of an extensive color palette, meticulously highlighting some shots or areas of the scene to only illuminate the parts of the antagonist that he wants you to see in a given moment, but still giving us just enough of a tantalizing taste to keep us on the edge of our seats with anticipation. What other films lean on due to laziness or lack of budget, Peele makes into an engaging preview of the main event. This carries over into the sound design, as effects, catalog songs, and Michael Abels’ subdued ambient score flit in and out based on the needs of the moment. And as our adversary approaches, complete with its EMP-esque ability to manipulate electronics, so too does the sound portfolio distort and cut out for us watching as it does for the characters on screen.
The script is very cleverly written, filled with insightful humor, cheeky one-liners, and an emphasis on drawing our attention to certain moments without heavy-handed exposition. The only real fault I can find, and it’s minor, is in the non-linear chapter formatting. The film is divided into several sections, each named after one of the horses in the film (plus Gordy the chimp), but at times it can feel a little disjointed, if not outright jarring, to jump back and forth just for contextual scenes. This is especially noticeable when it comes to Jupe and the on-set disaster of his childhood, because the opening shot of the aftermath is really all the shock value we need for that particular moment, and the two returns we make to it don’t really add all that much to our understanding of his character. Steven Yeun does a good enough job through his performance for us to get his motivations and the folly of them, so the flashbacks end up feeling a tad superfluous, not to mention bringing the main action to a halt in the process.
That’s really the only knock of the entire movie for me, and it’s not all that bad, because the execution is still fairly compelling. But the real meat of the story is in OJ and Em’s character development with respect to the threat that looms over them figuratively and literally. I absolutely love how the monster is teased before its big reveal, and the ingenuity used in their attempts to survive are not only compelling, they’re poignant as a metaphor for consumerism and environmental destruction. This is the genius of Jordan Peele. More than any other filmmaker of his generation, he has this ability to tap into the zeitgeist and spin it in a way that educates you while potentially scaring the crap out of you. He’s equal parts deferential to the masters who came before him and ambitious enough to make his own unique mark, making old ideas feel truly new again. I don’t want to jinx it, but the man’s got a perfect record going.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What innovations would you like to see in horror? What direction do you think Jordan Peele will go next? Let me know!