“It was a one eyed, one horned, flying purple people eater; sure looked strange to me.”
Nope is a 2022 film written, directed, and produced by Jordan Peele for IMAX. It is a stunning tour de force. True to form in his albeit brief filmography, it forces the audience to upend their expectations. Nope stars Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Stephen Yeun who are joined by Michael Wincott, Brandon Perea, and Keith David. The adroit Michael Abels confidently continues his collaboration with Peele by crafting a cacophonous score and spectacular sound design. The expansive stage is meticulously set by the clockwork cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema, who is able to seamlessly juggle between the wide open spaces and big sky of the arid Agua Dolce desert and the claustrophobic confines of what was thought to be safe and cozy.
Something is out there. Something is up there. Something is raining death from above. Riding a pale horse, Otis Haywood (David) is killed as he cranes his neck, startled by an atypical trumpeting thunder cracking from the clouds. Random debris plummets around him, and a coin spears through his eye, tumbling deep into his brain.
The white horse is named Ghost, and as his father collapses out of the saddle, blood streaming from his face, Otis Junior, OJ (Kaluuya) notices a key embedded in the equine’s flanks. He doesn’t have time to properly take care of Ghost, but rushing his father to the hospital is in vain and he is forced to take a leading role in the family business. The Haywoods have been horse wranglers for Hollywood since the dawn of the moving picture as an art form, and OJ must keep calm, take charge and carry on. They have a commercial to shoot.
It’s not his bag. He’s out of his element and uncertain of himself, avoiding making eye contact with the producers, cowering from the crew, and skulking in the corner when the star arrives on set. Nearly flubbing his crew-and-cast safety speech, he’s saved by the arrival of Em (Palmer), his sister. She bounces on set, breezes past her tardiness, and regales the crew with the tale of Eadweard Muybridge.
Muybridge was a world-class weirdo and obsessive-compulsive with a TBI. He was acquitted of murdering his wife’s lover and also happened to come up with the idea of sequentializing and projecting photographs in an attempt to study locomotion in animals and people. Muybridge is the father of all modern cinema, and Em reminds them all of one of the earliest attempts to catch images and play them back; Muybridge’s Animals in Motion from 1887, which prominently displayed a black jockey galloping a horse amongst other things. As befit the time, the name of the horse is known, a mare named Annie G, but the jockey’s name is lost to history. Em tells the production crew that she and her brother OJ are that rider’s great-great-great-grandchildren. She vehemently says, “Since the moment pictures could move, we’ve had skin in the game!”
Despite OJ’s admonitions to the crew, Lucky the horse is startled and expresses his indignation by lashing out with his hooves. The Haywoods lose the gig and the reality of their financial situation begins to weigh heavily on OJ. He’s determined to sell Lucky to Ricky Park (Yeun), who is a former child star with a dark past. Park has re-invented himself as the owner and operator of a wild-west, Cowboys & Aliens coded theme park called the Star Lasso. Park seems to have an insatiable need for steeds though OJ is certain they’re to provide his tourist attractions with a sense of verisimilitude.
OJ sees some things. Hears some things. Then sees some other things, some seriously weird shit. There’s something wrong with the sky, and he wrestles with how crazy that seems. The problem is, he has horses missing. He resolves to get to the bottom of this mystery but knows he can’t do it alone.
His sister, always looking out for the fast buck realizes that if they could get what OJ is seeing on film, they could get their Oprah Shot, their Golden Ticket, their solution to life the universe, and everything. They enlist the help of an AV tech named Angel (Perea) and saturate the ranch with auto-traversing security cameras, but it’s not enough. The electrics keep going down. Em is resolved to recruit Antlers Holst (Wincott), a renowned cinematographer, to get the footage they need.
Holst is obsessed with the idea of an Impossible Shot, a combination of perfect action, perfect lighting, and perfect camera work. On the phone with Em, he sits in the bay, editing a film of predators fighting; tiger and python, footage just waiting for the patient, erudite voice of David Attenborough to set the stage. Angel has a tape with anomalies, and Holst wants in. He’s brought an array of hand-cranked, EMP-immune cameras to film OJ’s phenomenon.
When other horses are taken, OJ begins to understand the inconceivable nature of the entity in the clouds. With a jarring boom, bolts, and a torrential, horrendous blood rain, the thing from above reminds them that like the abyss, it gazes also. Can OJ rally his team to focus, not on their Tickets, not on Oprah, not the Impossible Shot, but on all the horses that have gone missing? Oh, yeah, now half the town is gone, including Park, his wife, and his kids. The others are firm in their resolve. If you can’t capture it on film, it might as well not exist. But the thing from above has other plans.
Daniel Kaluuya is tremendous. His physical command expresses the subtext in every scene he’s in. He deflates or inflates as required by circumstance, and as the POV character, we are along for the ride with him. His downcast eyes in the studio before the predatory producers and staff add another layer of the foreshadowing that Peele is just slathering the movie with. As OJ accepts the absurdity of his situation, so does the audience. There is one solid jump scare in the film, and the theatre recoiled at it with a collective gasp but Peele’s impeccable command of the camera demands the audience’s imaginations go to work instead of showering the screen with viscera.
Keke Palmer brings Tigger-like intensity to her role as Em, totally dedicated to her passions of the moment and only helping out on the ranch in her particular way. OJ keeps trying to fit her in his routine, but she knows everything is changing around them. She’s not satisfied with the status quo and exudes an ambition that is palpable.
Brandon Perea sneaks in and steals just about every scene he’s in. Angel the AV tech is a man steeped in science who will set up your wifi like you wouldn’t believe, but clothed in conspiracy, he’s liable to tell you a story that he’s heard, from people, that you wouldn’t believe. He’s ready to believe. Perea embodies his character’s desert-baked brains; if aliens built the pyramids, but there are aliens in the sky, he wants a record, he wants it on film.
Michael Wincott is such a character’s actor. His voice is so distinctive but he often seems to be able to submerge his rasp into the part. His character Holt yearns for the Impossible Shot, and as he exposits on it at length in the desert, Wincott’s face descends into a yearning that displays Holt’s years behind the lens and the aspirations he’s yet to fulfill. He wants that shot, he wants to hunt it down.
This is a stupendous movie. Nope is a filmmaker’s film, a picture about movies within a movie about movies. It’s just uncanny. If Alfred Hitchcock, Rod Serling, and Steven Spielberg had a love child, it would be Nope. There is a shameless embrace of the genre, a brazen expression of form. The multilayered foreshadowing Peele lays out for the audience is quite remarkable. He does it over and over again, showing his cards and building the foundations of the movie, then the girder-frame, then plumbing and electric, then finally sheetrock and glass. The foreshadowing begins in the first scene and doesn’t stop until every character shows their cards. The movie doesn’t hold the audience’s hand but there are certainly road signs in advance of the traffic.
Alan Moore once wrote “Start out with the saddest thing you can think of and get the audience’s sympathy on your side. After that, believe me, it’s a walk.”
Peele may have read that, the movie opens with the saddest, most grueling experience someone might endure on camera for the whole world to see, a jarring coming-of-age episode that may haunt this reviewer to his grave. Peele’s command of the camera is precise, and like Yossarian with Snowden in David Heller’s Catch 22, the story spirals back to this opening several times in the film.
Ghost is impaled by a key when Otis looks up and it’s the subtle-but-not-subtle use of the extensive foreshadowing that is interwoven throughout the film. It’s literally the key to the movie, in the very first scene.
When provoked, the thing from above unfurls and blossoms like a cross between an angry space- peacock and a photographer’s parabolic reflective lighting umbrella. Clouds are at its command, and it’s claiming the sky as its own. Team Haywood just wants one good picture, but capturing the thing from above on film is a predatory instinct which might provoke a response they could regret.
There are many delightful layers to this film. So, so many layers. The horror elements are entertaining, but the mystery from the sky is too big for jump-scares. The blue sky is just too damn big but Peele is brave enough to use that bold background and the bright of day for his climax. At the same time, the film descends into a visualization of glorious film jargon, camera talk, lens captures, maker’s-mark aperture-focus, and all sorts of terms this reviewer needs to learn about to expand his understanding of photography. The immediate impulse this reviewer had when leaving the theatre was that a re-watch was essential, with pause button on hand. Something tickled me in the back of the Gulliver, and I kept slipping back to SNL. I realized this film is essentially the 1975 Landshark skit writ large and coming from above, but it works and it’s AWESOME.
Nope is a “fuck yeah!” Please go see this movie.
Nope is in theatres on Friday, August 22nd.