Jordan Peele knocks it out of the park again with Nope

Hilarious and terrifying, Nope might be Peele’s best film yet.

Nope opens with a terrifying scene: a chimp covered in blood beats an unseen woman on a TV stage to death. Blood covers the floors, and the studio audience is long gone. The scene unfolds from the vantage point underneath a table without a single cut. We have no framing for where we are or how we got here, but the overwhelming quietness of what’s unfolding gets under your skin. It’s a pre-cold open that will lead into a second, as an anti-miracle will strike next at a California ranch where a pair of horse-trainers, a father and son, pack up for the night. Suddenly, something falls from the sky and mortally wounds the father in a senseless and inexplicable accident. 

With these two incidents and all that unfolds throughout Nope, Jordan Peele is slowly unveiling a filmmaking style with popular appeal and demands rigorous engagement that overreaches what most critics have time to do. While Nope tells a reasonably straightforward but by no means predictable horror film, he’s also reflecting on the nature of storytelling, the portrayal of black and POC Americans within contemporary cinema and how trauma is served on a silver plate, ready to be consumed. 

Keke Palmer Daniel Kaluuya Brandon Perea
Keke Palmer (centre) with Daniel Kaluuya and Brandon Perea in Nope

Much like elements of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me poked fun at the overeager symbolic readings of its diehard audience, Nope seems to do the same here. By using dream-logic and associative imagery, Peele finds a way to redirect the textual reading from purely 1:1 symbolism into a grander story of family and representation. It also means that a single viewing and a rushed text will hardly do the film justice. In a world of wishy-washy images and algorithm-driven storytelling, Nope stands as a film made with intention. 

As OJ, a stoic and shy horse-trainer, Daniel Kaluuya proves why he’s one of the screen’s greatest actors. The inventiveness of the characterizations and image-creation is astonishing. He’s solemn and quiet, delivering very few lines but no less drawing the audience in with his intensity. We feel in his gaze and his asides, thoughts and feelings churning, which mirror and guide the audience into the horror unfolding. He’s a screen cowboy reinvented, toying with historical truths and mythmaking fantasies. If he loves his work and his horses, that vocation is only used to bring to life illusions that ultimately bring his animals and himself into harm’s way.

Nope Steven Yeun Jordan Peele
Steven Yeun in Nope

At a nearby ranch, Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) has turned his fame as a child actor starring in a Western show into a destination amusement park. Whereas OJ and his family are struggling, trying to maintain control over their image and hold onto the piece of creative power they have, Jupe has given away his image and sold it as an elaborate mythmaking fantasy. Piece by piece, he’s buying OJ’s life and ranch from under him, slowly replacing the real history with the fake one.

The beauty of Peele’s screenplay and filmmaking is that Jupe never comes across as villainous. His storyline is tragic because his trajectory feels inevitable as part of a larger survival strategy within an industry that often equates and exploits certain people as animals. His obsession over a particularly tragic incident in his life (hinted at in the film’s opening sequence and slowly unveiled) is treated from multiple angles that reveal how trauma and suffering become mythologized and sanitized for mass entertainment. 

OJ’s sister, a fantastically vibrant Em (Keke Palmer), is caught between them. She’s carefree and full of beans, brimming with love and passion for life and all it has. She’s ambitious and not marked with the same level of tragedy as her brother or his “double” Jupe, however, markedly, her joy often lures in violence. She’s not necessarily punished for her happiness and pleasure, but it’s presented as a liability, an uncomfortable invitation for violence in a cruel, unfair world. Palmer drives so much of the film as the talker and the mover. She’s the real heart of the whole thing, a charming and unpredictable foil and ally.

Nope Daniel Kaluuya Jordan Peele
Daniel Kaluuya in Nope

If so much of this review has been focused on the characters, it’s because this film works so well as entertainment. As many critics have pointed out, the film shares a lot in common with Spielberg films like Jaws and even War of the Worlds, pitting plucky characters against the insurmountable majesty of the natural world and the more unnatural order of human society, which often seems as unmovable as the mountains. 

The less known about Nope, the better, but the movie will live on through multiple viewings. It’s straightforward as a narrative and wins you over easily but invites you to revisit its world and terrors. Jordan Peele continues to create a singular landscape for America’s nightmare, injecting it with fun and pleasure in a way so few artists do. This is a must-see big screen experience, one of the greatest cinematic pleasures this year has had to offer. ■

Nope, directed by Jordan Peele

Nope opened in Montreal theatres on Friday, July 25, and is now streaming in Canada on Crave.

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