At first Nope, the thrilling new horror film from Jordan Peele, a woman named Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) tells a story. She and her brother OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) are horse trainers and ranchers by trade, who put their animal fighting skills to good use on television and film sets, which is where we meet them today. But the ranch is a family business, passed down through their father, the late Otis Haywood (Keith David), and his father before him. Go back far enough in their family line and you’ll meet the man Emerald tells us about in her story: the black jockey captured in Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 photographs of a galloping horse, which, strung together, became one of the earliest known examples of stop-motion photography – basically, movies. We know the name of the horse: Sallie Gardner. We know the name of the horse’s owner: Leland Stanford. What we don’t know is the name of the man riding the horse. That’s the story Emerald tells us – before telling us about her side tangles and where we can find her on social media. A girl must eat.
What does all this have to do with aliens? In Peele’s film, everything. Nope is largely a movie about what can’t be tamed, and the spectacle — our terrible, overwhelming hunger for it — tops the list. (Aliens — animals, writ large — loom very close.) The point of opening a movie like this with a callback to the birth of movies isn’t just to teach us where black people go. fit into this story, although it’s obviously very well to the point; even the decor decor of Nope underscores the idea, down to a poster at the Haywood ranch for the all-too-little-known classic noir western Buck and the preacher — a reminder that the history of cinema still needs all kinds of interventions.
But Peele, a director who has made a name for himself by infusing horror with wholesome dollops of noir common sense and a love of cinema, has even more ideas up his sleeve. A lesson of Muybridge’s work was that the camera, stopping time, could see things the human eye could not. Pictures are proof. Want proof of a horse galloping, the moment none of its hooves hit the ground? Only a photo can convince you. You want UFO evidence? Want the first stakes of this evidence before it’s snatched from your hands, destined to become the property of a curious, cheeky, hungry public? Well, you better hope those aliens are in your backyard – which, as it turns out for Emerald and OJ, they are.
Maybe the siblings should consider themselves lucky. The day we see them on a movie set with one of their horses, named Lucky, is the same day former child star Ricky Park (Steven Yeun) offers to buy Lucky – in fact, to buy their entire family ranch property – out of their hands. When day turns to night, the Haywoods learn why. There’s something in the sky: something that makes their horses run wild and disappear into the night. If you’ve seen horror movies, you know the signs. A cloud that does not move during the day. Brown-outs and strange noises at night. They set up video cameras around their remote and isolated property, nestled in the hills of northern California, and on the roof of their house. But the suspense is not in the question of why. Emerald early on asks her brother if he thinks there is a spaceship hovering over their front yard. He just has to nod his head yeah.
Nope isn’t the kind of movie to obscure what it’s all about – that’s one of the most satisfying things about it. It’s kinda like the classic M. Night Shyamalan Panels in this way. This movie knew we know the signs. It does not build towards a climactic revelation of the UFOs at its center: it reveals them halfway, in – what else? – video footage taken on the ground, much like the ones the Haywoods soon want to create. The pleasure of Shyamalan’s film is not to see where the signs lead, that is to say towards the inevitable, but rather to see his characters trying to make sense of these signs, trying to integrate what they see in their understanding of the world, to the point that these mysteries inspire a crisis of faith.
Nope is similar, only it is about the gaze crisis. What do you do when you hear about an awful, unbelievable, little-known event – a freak murder or accident that happened a long time ago, the kind of deep cut that barely lingers in cultural memory? Many of us can’t help but search for it. What’s the first thing you do when a foreign object in the sky passes overhead, just out of sight? You look up.
Peele’s ingenious idea is to use this instinct against us. It’s more than a question of unidentified flying objects. It’s a matter of tradition, of violence – of horror, of course. Peele has rightly been noticed for his profusion of cinematographic references, his almost scholarly, but in no way didactic or simply referential, ability to recall the foundations of the genre. Nope is another masterclass in this trend in his work – just look at his approach to the simple idea of the UFO. The myth of the flying saucer is alive and well in this film. But it wouldn’t be Peele if that trope wasn’t overhauled.
Peele’s career as a director has been overly defined by the term “social thriller.” Less noticed, but just as important, is its unabashed investment in symbolism, the kind of lofty conceptual thinking that can nudge a film along the axis of its ideas, separate from its emotional logic or genre satisfaction. At its best, as in get out, Peele fuses that impulse with his deep knowledge of tropes and incredible sense of humor to create something as entertaining as it is thought-provoking, a film that can end in a classic, nasty information dump without feeling overwhelmed and deflated. by explanation. Wehis solid second thriller, is the prey of the latter: the concept and the action were almost in contradiction, which gives a film with too many symbols and too strong a need to speak to us through them, when its action was already doing sufficient.
Nope is like the cosmically perfect son-in-law of both. Peele brings together concept and beautifully realized terror – including a sequence halfway through the film, beginning when a live broadcast goes awry and ending with a sickening twist on a house of horrors. It’s a segment of the movie that uses every available resource to threaten the senses, from the thuds of heavy rain to one of the weirdest examples of a movie scream I think I’ve heard. This is a film that knows the power of images. He learned, from the greats of the genre, that what we fear most is what cannot be seen, what is simply implied. All the camera has to do is trace an arc in the sky and you’ll believe there’s something. (Director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, who shot Dunkirk – an IMAX film, like this – was a perfect fit for this project, able to carve bold, evocative shapes onto the screen in what seems like the simplest of ways.)
None of this would work without people. Palmer and Kaluuya couldn’t be better. Palmer is depressed in every way, as stylish and unflappable as Samuel L. Jackson or Jada Pinkett Smith, with a taste for stoner mayhem and, when the film calls for it, action movie savvy. She’s who you want to be in a movie like this. But you’re not Keke Palmer – sorry. She makes an amusing pair with Brandon Perea, who plays the name of a tech store clerk, but is really this movie’s version of a video store clerk: in the know, knowledgeable, grudging, and ultimately over his head.
Kaluuya, meanwhile, offers us something else. His OJ is a man of few words who seems tougher than him, but not out of shyness. It takes time to realize the archetype he draws from here, one that belongs to another genre — the one that the character of Antlers Holst, played by Michael Wincott, should recall with his Eastwood growl .
Nope can be a horror movie that the most overwhelming thing you can do is watch – but the key to the film’s conceit lies in the irony of wanting to be seen: in which the black descendants of a man whose name has been lost to cinematic history find themselves eager to be handed the reins of their own story and give them a chance to tell it themselves, for once. One of the terms Emerald uses to describe its great ancestor, that black jockey atop Leland Stanford’s horse, is “action hero.” She claims him as one of the first. And because of the horse, she goes further: she’s a western star. Mid Road, Nope recalls heightened fears of its horror to become something else. It becomes a story of invasion – not just alien type, but terrestrial type and territorially offensive. It becomes a film about protecting the farm against the most invasive species of all: the others. It becomes a western.
What does this mean for Nope should be left to the film to reveal. But it’s not the kind of thing that can be reduced to a plot point. That’s why, as you watch, this alien life form in the sky may start to look like something a bit familiar, a cinematic symbol born from these same landscapes, a totem of cinematic heroism. Then, like the film itself, it becomes something else: an undulating, mocking hymn to the spectacle. You can’t help but stare. But there, it seems to kill.