Horror is a hard genre. It’s easy to make people cry, it’s harder to make them laugh, but it’s a real challenge to scare an audience. Jordan Peele has been at the forefront of a horror resurgence happening over the last few years. While still very much a young filmmaker, he came out of the gate strong with his first two films. With his third effort Nope hitting theaters, will he continue his impressive track record? Read on!
I’m attempting to keep this spoiler free, so you’ve been warned. Nope follows a family of horse wranglers. Life has already been kind of a struggle after the family patriarch (Keith David) dies in what appears to be a freak accident. Things get even more complicated when they begin to see and experience strange things on their deserted ranch. Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott and Steven Yuen co-star in the movie. Jordan Peele directs the film from his own script.
Jumping right into the movie, the performances are what sealed the deal for me. Those who read my work know I never miss an opportunity to shine a light on Daniel Kaluuya, who is one of the industry’s contemporary acting treasures. His work has been reaching new levels since he hit pop-culture consciousness after starring in Get Out. With each passing role he’s been getting better and the same is true with his work in Nope. He’s delightful to watch.
OJ (Kaluuya) is an interesting role to think about. It isn’t bright and it isn’t flashy. This time out, the fun role belongs to Keke Palmer. Kaluuya is the rock in Nope. This can be a powerful, but often thankless part. He’s quiet. He’s contemplative. He’d rather sit back and let his sister step out in front— which she is more than willing to do. OJ is an observer and in this, serves as a powerful entry point for the audience.
At the same time, Keke Palmer steps out in front of this movie and absolutely dominates every scene she’s in. With credits going as far back as 2004, Palmer is not a newcomer to the industry. However, her portrayal of Emerald is a star making role and she hits it out of the metaphorical park. There’s alot of buzz going around social media channels about her performance and I’m inclined to say, believe it. Believe every word of it.
In fact, early critics to see this movie have thrown around some strong hyperbole about the movie in general. Nope has been whispered in the same breath next to classics like Jaws and Close Enounters of the Third Kind, resulting in some massive expectations which honestly are unfair to place on any work.
What these critics are picking up on is just how educated a filmmaker Jordan Peele is. He knows movies. He knows the directors who came before him and he understands the history of horror. No film exists in a vacuum.
Peele is fast emerging as one of Hollywood’s best contemporary horror auteurs and in his hands, Nope feels incredibly contemporary. At the same time though, Peele is having a blast playing in what feels like a very classic sci-fi setting. There is a simplicity in his concept and execution that is deeply rooted in classic horror. As I sat in the theater, I was reminded of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I would wonder if this could also be where the Spielberg comparisons above are coming from. Just this week even, Peele was paying reverence to horror legend John Carpenter on Twitter. The best filmmakers are also fans of movies and Peele’s fandom shines through in Nope.
I’ve let it be known in previous write-ups that I’m a coward as it relates to horror. My favorite horror movies (with a few notable exceptions) aren’t of the torture or gore horror variety. I shy away from slasher movies. An effective filmmaker can just as easily craft uneasiness, suspense and even terror in the quiet moments.
This is where Jordan Peele shines in Nope. He revels in setting the audience on edge in the stillness of this setting. It seems all the movie needs to do is set OJ in the middle of a pasture at night with little to do but watch a UAP (Unidentified Ariel Phenomena) glide silently above his head.
It gave me tremendous delight that (as I mentioned), Nope feels deeply rooted in 1950s sci-fi. At the same time though, Peele brings the “UFO” genre into the 21st century. He makes mention of, as well as conjures images of, the “UAP” footage declassified by the government over the last few years. These aren’t the hulking ships common in the last two decades of Hollywood cinema. This one is slick, sleek and doesn’t make any noise. Nope has clearly studied (and again makes reference to) Ancient Aliens and brings a very The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch vibe as well. Peele has done his research and those who watch some of these shows will find a lot here to like.
One of the film’s greatest “see this with an audience” moments comes very early in the second act as OJ wanders through a barn late at night only to see a figure seemingly materialize just ahead of him. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard such a communal experience of “Don’t go in there!”. The moment is then followed by one of many delightful laugh moments as OJ drops the film’s title to humorous effect.
With that being said though, the biggest challenge to this film for me will be hard to discuss. I am staying spoiler free, after all. As a director, Peele’s movies tend to be about a B for me. I love a majority of them, but he always looses me in his endings.
This was very much the case for his previous film, US. I was riveted! But once act three rolled around, the resulting plot twist (there’s always a twist!) frustrated me. This did end up being the case… to a slightly lesser extent… with Nope. Peele makes a creative choice with his script which certainly works well with the narrative (allegory?) he’s trying to tell, but it left something to be desired and threads aren’t tied together. Perhaps this is in the “woulda coulda shoulda” level of complaints, but I found myself frustrated as the details of the third act took shape.
In fact, Steven Yeun (who is a very visible part of the film’s marketing) is tied up in this struggle. He plays Ricky Park, a former child actor who now runs a Wild West tourist trap. Yeun is a another acting treasure and is typically good here. He’s always good. The film crafts a strange, interesting and frankly scary backstory for him. In fact, it leads to one the scariest moments in the film. However, in the grand scheme of things, as everything comes to a close it’s difficult to call his character anything more than a plot device. He seems to be present to help the film make a narrative point and also to propel Nope from its second act into the third. It’s a shame. That these story lines aren’t given more time and that Yeun doesn’t have more to do.
By the concluding half hour, all the suspense seems to have worn out. Things gel seamlessly in Nope when there’s an element of suspense, but once the characters figure things out, the narrative sags. I distinctly felt moments in the last act where I thought like the story was going to (or should) end… and then it kept going. This leads to a movie feeling longer than it should be and things feel tacked on as the plot meanders through the rest of the story.
All in all, I felt a bit “meh” as I came out of Nope. As you can tell from this review, there’s a lot of good with this movie. The acting and direction are especially flawless. However, I once again struggled with Peele’s script. He lost me in the choices he made at the end and ultimately when audiences leaves a movie like this, they should be feeling one way. Honestly, as I exited the theater, I wasn’t sure how I was feeling. I didn’t dislike Nope, I just wasn’t entirely sure I liked it. Once again, Peele just couldn’t quite stick the landing for me.
Nope opens in theaters around the country today.