Nope’s horror is so harrowingly, penetratingly subtle, it’s almost non-existent.
This is a Jordan Peele joint. The significance of that depends on how you feel about Get Out and Us – and even Key & Peele. On the strength – and hype – of the former two films, Peele’s ascension into auteur-dom has been accelerated to the extent where the mere attachment of his name to a project sets off critical and commercial detonations. Jordan Peele – is a brand now. It demarcates the parameters of expectation: Social commentary Trojan Horsed as ‘horror’, with the genre itself expanded as a canvas upon which the lived and living horror of the Black experience is expressed.
It’s so good, so thoroughly conceived and so immaculately realised, I hated it with the fiercest passion the first time I watched it.
What we like
This bit contains spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
OJ: “What’s a bad miracle? They got a word for that?”
The answer is, literally and beyond, Nope.
Jordan Peele is the kind of filmmaker for whom ‘story’ isn’t a strong/meaningful enough mandate. His use of the medium is interrogatory – it spares no one and nothing. Not the audience and most definitely not the cultural matrix within which it exists and perpetuates the prejudices of the status quo. Since Get Out, that particular veneer of his style has increased in potency and incriminatory bite. Nope is the starkest and sharpest realisation of it yet. Which is why it’s also his most frustrating film.
Nope makes the case that where other auteurs whose names are a box office-guarantees bend towards expectation, Peele weaponises it and turns it on itself. Even before the film started, even as the trailers played, I sat in the theatre expecting to be ‘scared’ by the ‘horror’ film that was to come. As I found out, by its close and how it haunted me thereafter, my individual expectations would be the stage on which Peele would expose, address and take to trial larger, infinitely more complex horrors lurking in plain sight than any scares any film can serve up. But to get to that realisation, you have to work for it. Nope, throughout its hour-and-a-half runtime, makes the viewer do a lot of work.
Every aspect of the film is charged with a multivalent power. On the surface, the plot involves the members of the Haywood family, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Em (Keke Palmer), trying to save their family ranch Haywood's Hollywood Horses Ranch from dissolution. The legacy of the ranch is storied and foundational: It’s alleged that the first ‘film’ or series of moving images was of a Black jockey riding a horse. The Haywoods claim that they are descendants of said jockey.
Across from them – in the vast, barren expanse of Agua Dulce, California – is Jupiter’s Claim, a Western-styled theme park, run by Jupe (Steven Yuen) who, as a child, starred in the fictitious sitcom Gordy’s Home. The show, named after its eponymous chimpanzee animal actor, was notable for an episode in which the chimpanzee ran amok and brutally assaulted – some, fatally – the cast, except for Jupe, which it fist-bumped with its bloodied hand. Through still clearly traumatised by the incident, Jupe keeps a backroom attached to his office where memorabilia from the show is stored, including a shoe worn by an actress who was pummelled by Gordy, which he allows fans access to for a price.
One day, about six months after the death of OJ and Em’s father Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) from a coin that mysteriously falls from the sky that rips his face almost in half, a UFO enters the narrative and menaces the area. OJ and Em decide to profit from documenting it, and together with Angel (Brendon Perea), who works at the electronics store where they purchase recording equipment, drive the plot along with their endeavour.
In the midst of all this, they find out that, as with the horses, one way to not antagonise the UFO is to not look at it directly – “don’t look up – and that what was initially thought of as a ship is actually an alien, which leaves a trail of death and destruction in its wake as it swallows everything – people, horses – it hovers over.
In the literal reading of the plot, the alien explodes upon ingesting a giant balloon in the likeness of Jupe, and all is well again – as well as well can be given the preceding events.
If one isn’t inclined to search the diegesis for something deeper, all one would’ve sat through is a deeply unrewarding movie about a flying-saucer-shaped-origami-looking alien that you can evade if you don’t look up at it. Peele is more than obliging to this section of the audience.
He made this film so this group of people can say, “Nope”.
But if you’re willing to scratch all the itch-points the movie locates – the fact that the alien’s mouth is shaped like the aperture of a camera, the same shape as the frame within which the alleged Haywood jockey – “the first movie star” – rides; the fact that the alien kills its prey by sucking it up and into itself, erasing it by consuming it; the fact that its victims’ – and our – natural instinct is to look at it and demand more from it, in the way of an explanation, a divulgement, to satisfy the mundanity of our curiosity, the same way the showrunners of Gordy’s Home startled a chimpanzee into violence by gifting it balloons that popped – you’ll get to a series of crusty, bloodstained truths which connects our brutality to animals to the power imbalance acted out and enforced by colonialism, the residue of which is racism, which, in turn, is exacerbated by our consciousness’ simultaneous desire for and desensitisation to spectacle.
The cultural critique that simmers scaldingly beneath the superficial details in Nope is so barbed, it’s not so much layered as it is tangled.
The alien, the relationship between the characters and their circumstances, the entirety of the Gordy's Home sub-plot, all these seemingly disparate elements are rendered as cohering in a way that doesn't merely fulfil the dictates of 'cultural critique', but positions Peele at the forefront of weaponising the storytelling medium, politicising the act of going to and making movies, and, consummately, using the one of the most mainstream forms of entertainment as the means by which we burrow out of the rubble of a legacy of racism, dehumanisation, distraction and greed.
Nope proves the arbitrary truism that the third time’s indeed the charm. It’s the most scathingly reflexive and uncompromising take on the genre that Peele has ever attempted. Comparatively, Get Out and Us have much more in the way of conventional spooks and scares. Nope rewards multiple viewings, multiple attempts at self-examination, and an understanding of the fact that it's not the aliens in space we should be afraid of but the people who enact the violence of deeming others 'aliens', less than human, other-ed to the point of amusement and commodification. The ones that exist among us, filming us, reducing us and, eventually erasing us.
The ones that make us say, "Nope".
What we didn’t like
As I left the theatre, I felt a darkly blossoming mix of disappointment and dread that washed over me. It hung in the atmosphere for a few days until I realised that though I wasn't consciously working through the film internally, the wheels were indeed turning. The trial of images and experience was happening. That's when the clouds began to clear, making way for the real horror.
Special thanks to Stephanie for the insight and discussion.