Synopsis: After the mysterious death of patriarch Otis Sr. (Keith David), ownership of the Haywood Hollywood Horses ranch, which trains horses for film and TV productions, passes to his children Otis ‘OJ’ Junior (Daniel Kaluuya) and ne’er-do-well hustler Emerald (Keke Palmer). With a mountain of debt and studios moving away from using live animals, OJ is forced to keep the ranch afloat by selling horses to a nearby theme park run by former child star Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun). However, when a chance encounter suggests that there might be extraterrestrial activity on the ranch, OJ, Emerald, and a curious tech salesman named Angel (Brandon Perea) scheme to capture photographic proof that aliens do indeed exist.
1. Jordan Peele is the M. Night Shyamalan of his era. I’m sorry, that was glib. Let’s do better. Ahem. Jordan Peele is the latest in a long line of filmmakers working primarily in a mainstream blockbuster space who can sell tickets based off name recognition alone. This lineage, in varying degrees of quality, consists of luminaries like Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Michael Bay and yes, M. Night Shyamalan (who Peele resembles most on the surface thanks to both men’s penchant for high-concept horror based off their own original screenplays). Shyamalan, of course, fell from grace hard, but it’s worth remembering that at his peak from The Sixth Sense (1999) to The Village (2004), he was hailed as the second coming of Spielberg for the reasons established above. Of course, that prophecy turned out to be total horseshit, and it should encourage anyone foolish enough to even consider making such a grand claim to at least think twice and reflect about how badly that could go.
You get where I’m going with this.
You’re going to make me say it, aren’t you.
Fine. I know I’ll regret it, but fine.
Jordan Peele is the closest thing we have to Steven Spielberg. And Nope is solid proof as to why.
2. Nope is, in essence, the closest thing to a classic Spielberg blockbuster in a long time, and it does so by learning and adapting from the things Stevie was great at instead of just mindlessly aping his 80s classics (lookin’ at you, JJ Abrams). Take shot length for example. I stopped counting after a while, but it’s remarkable how many shots in Nope last a good 7-10 seconds, in contrast to the average shot length of English language films, which is about 2.5 seconds. And believe me when I say that you can feel the difference, in the way which the camera conveys so much more information, in how the actors are able to communicate so much more, or even in how tension is built up and released. (1) It also really helps to have Hoyte van Hoytema (Christopher Nolan’s go-to cinematographer) as director of photography, because Nope is beautifully shot, capturing both the wide vistas of Agua Dulce and the minute subtleties of Daniel Kaluuya’s face with equal skill. In particular, Peel and van Hoytema capture negative space brilliantly, forcing the viewer to constantly scan the seemingly empty sky for the thing that they know is up there, creating an everpresent sense of danger. Or consider the way in which Peele remains in complete tonal control of his film, pinging expertly from laugh out loud hilarity to white knuckle action to some of the most terrifying sequences you will see in a movie this year. But above all, it’s all about the storytelling, and how every element of Nope is perfectly crafted to suck the audience in and carry it along for the ride. It does not quite reach the unimpeachable level of Get Out (2017), but in many ways, Nope is the more confident and assured film, suggesting that Peele’s early success was no fluke, but instead, the foundation for what is looking more and more likely to be a long and fruitful career.
3. It helps as well that Nope is functionally a stealth reimagining of Jaws (1975), with the sky replacing the sea and the UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon – yes, the use of this specific terminology is plot-relevant) replacing the shark. I won’t get into too much detail to avoid spoilers, but it’s interesting to see how Peele’s screenplay plays with and reinterprets that particular classic. And like Jaws, Nope achieves a great deal simply by taking its time. Not just in the aforementioned shot length, but also in how the screenplay and editing methodically sets up every domino in position so they can all be knocked over at the climax. Peele’s screenplay is very meat-and-potatoes, in that it doesn’t do anything particularly fancy or novel, but it speaks to the paucity of good writing in Hollywood that methodical character work, coupled with artful utilisation of setups and payoffs, is all it takes for Nope to be one of the better written films of the year. To give Peele his props, he does manage to achieve a neat thematic throughline across the film of the way in which the motion picture industry has exploited various groups (racial minorities, the natural world, those in pain or suffering) all for the sake of spectacle. To follow up with the Jaws comparison, Nope even has its own version of the USS Indianopolis monologue, a moment when a seemingly trained chimpanzee goes berserk during the taping of a sitcom, maiming and killing multiple people. The import of this scene may at first be difficult to parse (particularly because its aftermath is the very first scene of the movie), but as the film continues to refer to it, even presenting it in its entirety, (2) it becomes clear that this moment is a sort of Rosetta Stone for Nope, a neat microcosm of its key themes and concerns. If you exploit something you do not understand for cheap spectacle, do not be surprised when it violently backfires.
4. Part of why the screenplay works is because of the actors who bring the characters to life. Daniel Kaluuya, fresh of his explosive Oscar-winning turn in Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) (3), takes on a very different task as the taciturn, withdrawn OJ. Kaluuya is by now without question one of the finest actors of his generation, and this seemingly unflashy role makes it clear why. Every facet of OJ, from his slumped shoulders to the little pause before answering any question, conveys the weight of the grief and responsibility he has to bear to maintain his family’s legacy. It’s a deep and affecting performance, and Kaluuya’s initial guarded demeanour makes it all the more cathartic when OJ finally steps up to be the black cowboy that is a part of his proud heritage. Equally impressive is Keke Palmer as the fire to Kaluuya’s ice. Emerald is a character we’ve seen before, the motormouthed grifter who learns to take responsibility for herself and others, but Palmer lends the well-worn archetype a boundless reservoir of charisma and energy. She’s an extremely magnetic screen presence, and with any luck, this film will push the former child star to more prominent roles. In the supporting roles, Brandon Perea thankfully steers clear from the usual tropes surrounding the ‘conspiracy-minded nerd’ archetype for a slightly mellower take, and Michael Wincott gives his ‘doing it for the art’ cinematographer a real gravitas in his few scenes. The standout in the supporting cast is of course Steven Yeun. Peele understands that Yeun is best deployed as he was in Burning (2018), to let the actor use his uncanny handsomeness and charm as a mask to hide something much darker (psychopathy in Burning, trauma in Nope). It is an excellent supporting role, and one that continues to further Yeun’s interesting career post Walking Dead.
5. All in all, Nope is another fine addition to Jordan Peele’s growing filmography, and a pretty solid rebuke to anyone who might view him as a one-hit wonder. While the slowness of its burn and its seemingly digressive plot might at first make it seem a little meandering, Nope all comes together quite beautifully at the end (albeit with a conclusion that feels a little too abrupt). With his third picture, Peele also exhibits an excellent sense of craftsmanship, refining his already superb technique to an extremely high level. It helps that he also has fantastic collaborators, such as Hoyte van Hoytema, whose ability to film both the vast and the intimate is unparalleled, while lead actors Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Steven Yeun bring the narrative to life with their lively and emotive performances. There are very few contemporary filmmakers working in the blockbuster space who are able to craft original stories that are both exciting and resonant (only Christopher Nolan really comes to mind), and we should treasure Peele for being in this select group. It’s all well and good having arthouse or indie auteurs, but the vast majority of filmgoers still primarily watch big budget blockbusters, and as such, it is all the more vital that there is a figure like Peele who delivers the expected fireworks while also providing thoughtful thematic insight and a rich, compelling story (plus, of course, consistently providing strong and meaningful minority representation). Nope doesn’t quite reach the watertight consistency of Get Out, nor does it soar to the heights of the most terrifying scenes in Us (though one or two of its gnarlier scenes are close), but it may be the film that best exemplifies the quintessential ‘great blockbuster’ – a thrilling, terrifying journey rooted on a foundation of thoughtful writing and refined craftsmanship.
So yes, Jordan Peele is the M. Night Shyamalan of his era. But if he keeps this up, he will be the Steven Spielberg for a new generation of filmgoers.
Verdict: Highly Recommended