Letterboxd Review: Nope (2022)

I like that Jordan Peele continues to follow the mandate that science fiction and horror can use outlandish concepts or premises, but ultimately must interrogate something explicitly real about human nature that doesn't require bells and whistles. To that end, Nope is a film about control. I think. It's entirely possible that I'm wrong on this, but Peele approaches human instincts both ancient (training horses and other animals) and modern (obsessively using technology to record our experiences) as potentially dangerous symptoms of trying to seize some semblance of control over situations that cannot be tamed.

That these instincts dovetail so nicely with the entertainment industry is a sweetener. Peele has enjoyed a lot of professional success in just a handful of years, and has likely come across many people in his work who don't fully grasp the idea that, say, a horse will only follow directions to a point before doing whatever the hell it wants or instinctively must. Or that weather patterns simply do not conform to our expectations. Or even that our precious technology has limits and often fails us. Especially in the movie business, there's a prevailing god complex that overrides common sense or respect for nature. 

What does any of this have to do with Nope? I desperately want to avoid giving away the plot for anyone, but suffice it to say that in Peele's latest pulse-pounding parable man's need to commodify experiences--especially those surrounding natural or supernatural forces--lead to ruin for anyone egotistical enough to think they can command, bargain with, bond with, or trick said forces. That sounds heavier than the movie allows it to be, thanks to a snappy screenplay that delivers just as many wry laughs as it does disorienting terrors.

This is illustrated through only a small handful of characters, namely OJ and Emerald Haywood. Siblings who trace their heritage through every era of motion picture history by way of the family's Hollywood horse wrangling business, they approach an elevating amount of "bad miracles" showing up to their ranch in completely separate ways. Emerald, a born carnival barker with a streak of side-hustles, sees the weird goings on as an opportunity to capitalize on, while plainspoken cowboy OJ views them the same way he might view a dangerous animal...with weariness and a measure of respect. This two-hander could easily be the funniest new comedy series on prestige television, which provides the proper stakes and the necessary decompression moments when the film hits its peaks of creepiness.

Keke Palmer, as Emerald, is the sizzle. Clad in casually fabulous loungewear and constantly bouncing around with the kind of infectious energy that has already launched a hundred memes from her previous work, Palmer plays her character as someone comfortable in her skin without falling back on boorish loudmouth archetypes. Indeed, Emerald is actually very sharp and displays a great deal of strength that encourages an audience to root for her in the film's breathless final act. Kaluuya, meanwhile, plays OJ as the steak with his terrific talent for holding close-ups and conveying much more with his somber eyes than with dialogue. His stoic point of view is exactly in-tune with Peele's plotting, wherein something as simple as a cloud or an unfamiliar noise have the magnitude to curdle a tough hombre's blood. Along the way, the Haywoods recruit several oddball allies and bump up against Steven Yuen's theme park proprietor Jupe Park. I find myself impatient for the moment when movie studios discover what a gigantic star Yuen is destined to be, but here his smaller role--while something of a slightly awkward side-loaded counterpart to the Haywoods--gives him lots to chew on in only a few minutes of screen time.

This is Peele's first earnest attempt at a big summer popcorn movie, and he delivers. The cinematography is a bounty of sun-scorched rolling hills out of a Sergio Leone horse opera during the day, and an atmospheric pastel blue during night sequences that's equal parts werewolf-infested moors and the colony planet from the Alien films, all shot on IMAX to a rollicking, expansive effect that slams home the scope of the natural setting and lighting. Simply gorgeous, but also utilitarian in conveying the eerie reality of rural life without presenting a movie that is pitch black for half its run time. The visual effects are startling and deployed with confidence, but never cross the line of being overindulgent--we see a lot more otherworldly things than I would have predicted, but only just enough to take your breath away and freeze you to your seat for more. I must also give special kudos to the production designers who created Jupiter's Claim, the rinky-dink roadside attraction that acts as a kitschy counterpoint to the Haywood ranch.

 Does the movie have the same thematic bite as Get Out or Us? Not at all, and it's pretty clearly by design. It contains more than a bit of overt social commentary, but it leans much further in the other direction on the Spielberg scale, toward spectacle. I say that, but while Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind ratchet up the tension by withholding the "money shot" of the mysterious adversary, Nope thumbs its nose at this now-customary formula for monster movies. On a mechanical level addressing the genre, Peele's thesis seems to be that "the unknown" isn't nearly as universally scary as thinking you understand your predicament only for the floor to drop out underneath you, and to find out that you were dead-wrong.

We seldom get movies this adventurous and ambitious anymore. It deftly weaves back and forth between shocking and fun. Not bothering to be subtle, it has the advantage of a crowd-pleasing struggle between likeable heroes and a gooseflesh-inducing antagonist while still remaining haunting enough to stick in the mind days later. I admire and covet the craftsmanship behind this movie, but more than anything I appreciate the bygone novelty of unironic frightening amusement...it's an old-fashioned spine tingler. 

Rating: ✰✰✰✰ 1/2

This review is a part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile, which includes reviews and movie lists not covered here at the blog, including a ranking of several franchises and excerpts from the book, Cinema Autopsy, which is available on the Amazon Kindle store.

Previous Post Next Post