Basically: NOPE is Jordan Peele’s JAWS turned up into a sensory spectacle
Jordan Peele, much like Hitchcock, Serling, Clouzot, and even Shyamalan, has sculpted a niche out of the horror-tinged thriller genre—to such a stylistic degree it is a fingerprint. Exhibit A: During the first third of his films, Peele creates a symbolic framework of backstory, objects, trauma, character idiosyncrasies, and music. Those become the 3D glasses we as the audience use to fully experience the context as well as the denouement of the story. Exhibit B: Black American culture. Period. Blackness in all of its hues is another signifier of Peele’s style—our histories, our art, our distinct channels of communication. It’s all richly portrayed in Peele’s work and that is something none of the others can lay claim to.
In NOPE he’s at it again.
The story begins with Haywood Hollywood Horses, a historic horse-training ranch owned by two generations of the Haywood family. There is the patriarch Otis Sr. (Keith David), his son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), and little sis Emerald (Keke Palmer). The Haywoods can trace their lineage back to the first moving picture and therefore the first movie star. Yet tragedy is on the horizon and an improbably “hail” storm leads to uncertainty.
Meanwhile, over at a goldrush-themed amusement park, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) is a former child star who is hamming it up in Western glam. It’s another business that seems doomed to failure but Ricky’s pockets are deep even if his brain is shallow.
Meanwhile and whilst, the young and recently dumped Angel (Brandon Perea) is working a fairly solid although boring job as the tech specialist for a UFO-themed big box electronics store.
In summary, everyone is less than thriving, and sh!t is about to get weird. How weird? Well, horses disappear while screaming into the night, something ain’t right with the clouds, explosive fist bumps get bloody, and a series of oddly localized tornados keep popping up day and night. And then OJ looks up into the sky and sees something that might be a UFO/UAP or could be a gigantic and totally sinister sand dollar. You know things are bad when you think you see a huge flying sea creature darting past the moon.
What happens then? My lovelies, that is why you watch the movie. Here’s what I can tell you: NOPE is thoroughly engaging throughout and a visual treat. And, if you’re wondering, it makes more narrative sense than Us with fewer holes.
Kaluuya and Palmer share the hero duties to winning tag-team effect. Kaluuya does something different here, his OJ is measured and reassuringly methodical in his approach to things. He also has social anxiety combined with a love for animals that gives his character layers. Kaluuya is hilarious in his moments but the heavy-lifting of hilarity goes to Palmer. Keke is amazing in NOPE, creating a character who is mercurial and swaggering, ambitious and disarming, and yes she is funny but also smartly frightened and just as smartly brave. For a thrill, Palmer gets a moment on an electric motorbike that anime fans will squeal for.
Rounding out the cast is a trifecta of actors. Yeun remains charismatic with a gravitational pull that makes you feel for him every time. Perea is a charm engine, giving Angel the relentless appeal of a golden retriever. You really want to see him win. And then there is the part Captain Ahab, part Brody from Jaws, Michael Wincott as Antlers Holst. The auteurism, the obsession, the voice!
Without having to ask, you already know there are underlying themes in NOPE, primarily there are three. One, your heritage is worth fighting for. Two, we sacrifice for art. Three, leave predators alone and hopefully they will do the same for you.
I don’t know how I feel about this one but I know I enjoyed it. As is the hazard of creating an engaging paranormal-horror-thriller, the logic isn’t always solid in NOPE but the spectacle works well as a magnifier for what is (as always) an intimate story told fantastically. I like the cut of Jordan Peele’s jib.
In the End: NOPE is a sinister and sensory spectacular. You absolutely must see how it ends.