Review: Nope (2022)

Preamble

For the first time in a while, Nope has felt like a genuine event movie. With minimalist and eyebrow raising teasers and the promise of Jordan Peele tackling the alien invader sub-genre, there’s been a palpable eximent on my part for its release. Does it live up to the hype? Well, you can find out after the jump. What did you think of Nope? Let me know in the comments below.

And if you like this post or any of my other horror-related ramblings, then you can find more at my second home- Horror Obsessive. I recently did a piece about my top five horror movie shots, which featured Jordan Peele’s Us. You can out, which one by clicking the link below.

Review

Ever since his barnstorming debut feature, Get Out hit screens in 2017, Jordan Peele has become a celebrated director whose efforts can make audiences squirm, think and laugh. Additionally, they’re often interesting riffs on classic movies, and concepts that greatly speak to our times; whether it’s Get Out’s underhanded racism in a post Obama America (via the premise of Guess Whose Coming to Dinner) or a fable about the class system in Us (via the theme of the blurred line between the civilized and uncivilized in The Hills Have Eyes).

Nope represents Peele’s most ambitious horror film to date. It’s expansive, intimate, occasionally harrowing, and subtextually fascinating in how it depicts two distinct ways in which horror movies are made.

Jordan Peele’s latest film is about a pair of siblings, OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em Haywood (Keke Palmer), who attempt to keep their family’s business afloat six months after the passing of their father, Otis Sr (Keith David). The elder Haywood was renowned for training, looking after and ultimately handling horses for various television and film productions.

To make ends meats, OJ has been forced to sell some of his large stock of horses to Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who now runs a theme park called “Jupiter’s Claim.” However, an opportunity arises for the Haywood siblings when OJ catches a glimpse of some spooky activity in the skies above his ranch. Armed with new cameras, the siblings, with the help of a conspiracy-loving tech adviser, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and a veteran cinematographer, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), attempts to capture a perfect shot of the UFO.

In contrast to his previous films, Peele’s Nope feels much more grandiose. Part of this comes from the approach and chosen landscape, which feels in spirit a homage to John Ford Westerns, which shot areas like Monument Valley with a seductive Technicolor flair. Moments from Nope capture this similar quality of sweep, with the characters often feeling small in the frame, compared with their barren desert surroundings. This is contrasted with an ominous quality to many of the languid moments that plays with sound like wind and creaks with the same precision as Sergio Leone did in his later Western films.

However, the best moments of filmmaking come from these low-angle shots that are often framed in handheld tracking shots as OJ hides in a barn with limited visibility, catching small looks at the alien threat from the skies. These moments of camera movements, which depict OJ going from one side of the barn to the other are visceral in capturing the sheer dwarfing and frighting nature of the central ship.

At the same time, Peele’s theme is equally ambitious in its scope and presentation. Given in an almost flickering, piece meal manner, the filmmaker takes his time to lay down the tracks for where his horror train is going.

Crucially, Peele introduces the film with a scene that depicts the aftermath of a sitcom called “Gordy show,” in which a Chimpanzee has murdered nearly every one of his co-stars in an act of bloody carnage. With close-ups of a little girl’s shoes and the sheer surreal nature of the scene, Peele channels Italian filmmakers like Dario Argento, not only from the sense of portraying something so gonzo and alien (no pun intended), but also from the vantage point of playing with the idea of something innocent being corrupted. With the glitzy and silly nature of a sitcom contrasted with the sheer shock of a bloody act being committed, Peele taps into the same juxtaposition that made Argento’s Deep Red so unsettling.

Despite seeming out of place for much of the movie, this side plot point proves to be an intriguing contrast with the main plot. In fact, they both represent two ways of horror moviemaking. Park chooses to capitalize upon his trauma of being a child star who survived a crazy attack by franchising it via creating a museum of memorabilia that people come to see and engage with the lost episode and show.

This aspects plays like a metaphor for a horror movie franchise where the original comes from a pure place of wanting to explore quite vivid and particular fears. But as the franchise goes on, it becomes watered down, that those concerns cease to be scary and potent. In particular, I was reminded of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, where Wes Craven took many different aspects and concerns and distilled them through a central villain who was a metaphor for a nightmarish bully who would sadistically kill kids. When Park cites an Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch of his traumatic experience, it reminded me of how Freddy Kruger became a clownish and goofy figure in an era where the songs from the soundtrack were given airtime on MTV (around A Nightmare Elm Street 4: The Dream Master).

In stark contrast, OJ’s and Em’s motives for capturing an image of the spacecraft feel in keeping with a horror director who wants to capture vivid truth with his movie. If Park’s plight is an analogue for the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise then OJ’s and Em’s storyline feels like an analogue of The Exorcist insofar as being a movie that wanted to ground its supernatural horror elements in documentary realism. The lip service given to how the image of the craft is going to make a difference also feels in keeping with horror moviemaking that has artistic value as its foremost intent as opposed to popularity.

Daniel Kaluuya gives an affectingly understated performance that relies on observation and subtle gestures such as eye movements and hand gestures. Keke Palmer lights up the screen with a lively and amusing performance that contrasts well with Kaluuya’s earnest character. And Michael Wincott provides a genuine sense of world-weariness in his turn as a famed cinematographer.

Michael Abels’s score also surprises with how adventurous it is, with some moments sounding like electronically infused outtakes of the theme for The Lone Ranger. But much like the film itself, it’s patient, exacting and gets under your skin.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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