Jordan Peele’s “Nope” is getting a “yes!” from audiences and fans all over.
Jordan Peele originally made a name for himself in the realm of comedy but has quickly risen to prominence in the horror genre with breakout films “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019). While both films can be categorized as horror, they also transcend into other genres. For the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, “Get Out” was nominated twice in the Musical or Comedy Category. “Us” had an easier time being marketed and accepted as a horror film. However, the marketing for Peele’s newest film, “Nope” was largely secretive, leaving audiences uncertain about what to expect. Viewers might have assumed it to be another horror film due to the past work but “Nope” seems to defy fitting into one genre.
Peele has always had a knack for genre-bending; when you combine his origins as a comedy writer with his tremendous love for horror and blockbuster movies of the past, it’s no surprise that all three of his films can be categorized under many genres, though “Nope” feels trickier to pin down. One wouldn’t be incorrect to call “Nope” an action film, horror film, comedy or thriller. What sets it apart from the other two is its devotion to what can arguably be seen as the film’s topic of choice: spectacle. It’s the biggest budget Peele has been provided with since smashing into Hollywood with “Get Out,” and every cent of the 68 million has been used.
Peele has proven to be a director who knows how to cast the right people and bring out their best performances. It’s not surprising that Daniel Kaluuya, the star of “Get Out” reunited working with Peele to give another strong performance as reserved and subtle Otis Jr (OJ) Haywood. Keke Palmer, who some may recognize from childhood favorites “True Jackson, VP” or the film “Akeelah and the Bee,” stars as Kaluuya’s sister, Emerald Haywood. Palmer, a name and face most would recognize, is a force to be reckoned with in this film. From her young acting days, she has kept busy in the entertainment industry. The longevity of her career so far is understated and truly just getting started, with “Nope” bringing her back to the front of the public’s minds. Not only is her chemistry with Kaluuya one of the truest encapsulations of what it feels like to have a sibling you’re both constantly irritated by and deeply protective of; she on her own brings a charisma, humor and heart to Emerald that is unique. For the rest of the main cast, Kaluuya and Palmer are accompanied and aided by standout supporting performances from Brandon Perea as Angel, a techie and alien enthusiast who works with Otis to capture footage of the alien, and Steven Yeun as Ricky “Jupe” Park, a former child star whose trauma is thinly masked by his showmanship.
Peele is probably one of the best contemporary filmmakers to really hone in on the use of socio-political commentary in horror. “Get Out” was a parable on the dangers of White liberalism and appropriation, and “Us” reminded crowds of the lengths to which individuals will go in order to protect their own livelihood and the “status quo.” So, the question prevailing amongst the viewer of “Nope” is: “What is “Nope” about?”
*Slight Spoilers Ahead
Here, Peele is less on the nose as he’s been in the past. The plot, and the “monsters” he uses his big budget to have on full display, provide more ambiguity. Both in the blockbuster nature of the film and also through the unique and original storytelling, the spectacle is the driving force in “Nope.” The “monsters” are repeatedly poked and prodded in the name of spectacle and profit. Even disregarding the giant saucer-shaped sky alien being tracked down by the “Oprah/Money Shot” the first “monster” we see is a bloodied chimp slapping at an unmoving girl’s body. Both the chimp, Gordy, and the alien in the sky are at a surface level meant to be the evil forces working against and harming humans. But, the true harm and pain only seem to come when the humans do all they can to profit off of and exploit these creatures. For Gordy, is he the monster, or are the TV executives who paraded around a wild animal for entertainment value to blame? Or in the second act of the film, it is upsetting to see Jupe and 40 audience members get eaten by the alien, but after all, Jupe was baiting and feeding the thing horses regularly for the profit of putting on an alien spectacle. Who is to say if the alien even knew the difference between a horse or the man in the cowboy hat looking up at him?
What adds another layer to this, though, is the legacy of the Haywood family, who, as Emerald with a winning grin at the very start of the film says, run the only black-owned horse training business in Hollywood. Their ancestor, part of the business’ claim to fame, is the unnamed jockey who was featured in Eadweard Muybridge’s “The Horse in Motion,”: one of the earliest uses of photography to make a film. The Haywood family business is failing, and with that goes the legacy of the black man who starred in the first film. This motivates Emerald and Otis, Jr.’s desire to capture the alien on film, and as such speaks to the importance of looking, and of being seen — especially on film. It’s two forces battling one another: the struggle to keep a legacy alive, something that has historically been robbed from Black Americans, and the need to end the cycle of exploitation.
Such in-depth commentary like this might make it difficult for some viewers to enjoy. “Nope” certainly provides audiences with the big, scary monsters that most blockbusters bank off of, but unlike blockbusters of the past, the morality of the monsters and their human counterparts are less black and white, making them harder to pinpoint as explicitly villainous or good. In “Nope” the writing of our “monsters” is not so clear. We can point at the sky, or at the animals in a zoo, but as the old turn of phrase says, there will always be three fingers pointing back at us. The Haywoods and their desire to capture the alien gain some levity from Peele, since their quest is borne of a need to survive and maintain their ranch, rather than for explicit capital gain. The rest of us have not been let off the hook so easily.
“Nope” is now showing in theaters.