There is a moment in Nope, Jorden Peele’s latest in his surprising and very welcome career as a filmmaker: OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), a very mild-mannered rancher races home to find a giant, menacing UFO pouring blood onto his ranch house. He sits there in his truck stone-faced after quietly analyzing the situation, and simply says, “Nope.” It’s a great example of how Peele has refreshed horror and sci-fi tropes, where his everyman or woman is Hollywood-savvy, knows when something is completely effed up, and actually acts accordingly. As one woman yelled to Kaluuya’s character from the packed theater audience, “Get out of there! Don’t act like a white person!!!”
At the beginning of the film, OJ’s father Otis Sr. (Keith David) is out on his horse and is mysteriously killed by debris (in his case a coin) falling from the sky. Months later, OJ and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) are left trying to keep the ranch going. But their California ranch has a very specific niche, supplying trained horses to perform in Hollywood movies and commercials, and the siblings no longer have the charisma (in his case) or the commitment (in hers) to keep the long-time family business going. So when a potential cash-cow presents itself via a mysterious maybe-UFO in the sky, the siblings decide they just need “the Oprah shot” of the phenomenon on film for a big payout to save the ranch.
With only a handful of characters, including a young tech guy named Angel (Brandon Perea) from an electronics big box store who sets up their surveillance cameras pointed at the sky, and a grizzled gravelly-voiced old-school cinematographer named Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) who knows that one amazing shot will make his name live in infamy, the cast is as compact as the desert ranch is vast. The only other folks in the valley are former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) and his family, who run a Western theme park coasting on Jupe’s fading Hollywood fame, who are also trying to find out a way to monetize the recent strange goings-on in the valley.
As we all know, what we don’t see is often scarier than the monster/alien/killer itself, and the first half of Nope builds with great dread and some solid chills as the characters and audience keep their eyes peeled to the sky. By the time we get the big reveal of the UFO’s and its intentions, as it rushes to the camera with a gaping hole to devour living things, it was like the first time you really see the shark in Jaws… I actually leaned wayyyy back in my chair with a flailing, “Gahhhhh!!!!” The rest of the film has the gang trying to figure out a way to catch the craft (or creature?) on film without being sucked into its gaping maw themselves.
Kaluuya’s OJ is almost a vacuum of introversion, so he is nicely matched by Palmer’s Emerald, who is vivacious and funny enough for the both of them. Yuen’s Ricky has a slick, kind of Hollywood-sleaze about him, while being well aware that he is coasting on being associated with a weird, violent tragedy involving a chimp on the set of his 90s sitcom (a strangely explicit flashback given a lot of screen time, but never really connected to the big picture).
Peele’s first feature, Get Out was great, but his next film Us petered out in the second half. Nope lands solidly between the two. It doesn’t quite stick the landing (the final moments are strangely anti-climactic), but it’s still a lot of fun getting there. I read that the original cut of the film was well over three hours, and at 2 hours 11 minutes, Nope could still be trimmed. But its lackadaisical style also works in its favor–allowing you to be well-invested in the siblings by the time the story gets to its first real scares.
Nope is still a “Yep!” from me, and I look forward to whatever Jordan Peele’s imagination spawns next. If you take away one thing, just remember–Don’t be like a white person in the movies if you want to survive!