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Nope: Say Yes to Distress

Calling occupants of inter-cinematic Craft.

It’s very hard to give an accurate summary of the plot of Nope, Jordan Peele’s latest film, without giving away spoilers. But I’m going to try. Here goes…

Things are not going well at the Heywood Hollywood Ranch, where horses are trained for use in movies. After the owner of the ranch is killed in a freak accident by falling debris from the sky, his children Otis Jr/OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) are struggling to keep things afloat. Then one day, OJ sees what appears to be a UFO hovering around the ranch. Believing it to have something to do with their father’s death, the Heywood siblings attempt to get footage of the craft to sell to the media, only to discover that the thing is far more dangerous than they think.

That might sound incredibly vague, even cliché, but like Jordan Peele’s previous films, it’s really better if you don’t know anything going into it. However you feel about spoilers, it’s highly advised that you go in cold and/or full of your own theories about the film after analyzing the trailers. You’ll get far more out of its twists and turns. There’s a moment about half-way through the film that shifts the energy from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Fire in the Sky in one terrifying instant of revelation that I, for one, could not have predicted.

Girl, I’m right there with you.

A big part of what makes Peele’s films so fascinating lies in his approach to the craft of storytelling. More than the actual stories themselves, it’s the precision and attention to the actual process. While you’re experiencing it, the first act of Nope feels slow, even ungainly or uneven. It takes the context of the flow between acts two and three to make us realize how much Peele was setting up in the first act. How much he was planning, plotting, and strategizing to make the film’s climax hit as hard and resonant as it does.

Peele also has a massive amount of respect for his audience, trusting us to be part of the solution to the puzzles he’s laying out. In some way, it’s the opposite of the Mystery Box film theory that J. J. Abrams popularized. Instead of throwing the audience into the middle of a mystery, with more clues just leading to more mysteries, Peele takes the audience along from the beginning, exploring the mysteries with us. He’s built the film around discovering the solution instead of around the energy of mystery itself. It’s far more practical than it is metaphysical.

It’s this practicality that makes the second half of the film so impactful. The vibe of Nope is extremely grounded, even if the story is about a UFO. It’s easy to get sucked into OJ and Em’s situation because they’re so realistic and relatable. Consequently, when things start to go very, very south, it also makes us feel as terrified and unsure as they are.

How you doin’?

And trust, there are some terrifying things going on in Nope. Unlike Us, which had a pretty solid stream of horror elements throughout its runtime, the horror here is distilled primarily into a couple of distinct set pieces that can only be described as biblical in nature. They echo. They resonate. They paint a mural in the back of your brain just to make sure you won’t forget. In many ways, they after effects of the scenes are far more frightening than the scenes themselves.

Peele’s command of the kinetic energy of the film is also remarkable to behold. That first act might seem like a lazy river slowly making its way down, but under the surface, things are already starting to roil. Once the midway point is reached, the energy starts to shift, to pop, and to spark. Before you know it, things are barrelling forward, grabbing you along with it, leaving you in a kind of breathless, almost confused state. During the climax, I had to keep asking myself if I knew exactly what I was looking at.

What keeps the film truly anchored is its core cast. While the cast is not necessarily small, only a handful of characters have more than one or two lines of dialogue. The most prominent, of course is OJ and Em, both played with skill and empathy by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer. OJ is serious and stoic, while Em is charismatic and emotional. They start the film out fairly estranged, but it doesn’t take them long to from a distinctive yin/yang dance that makes them inseparable. Both actors know their characters inside and out, and you can’t help but get drawn into their lives. Palmer especially gives a thoroughly dedicated performance here.

I need to go see a woman about a horse.

Their support shouldn’t get forgotten, however. Brandon Perea plays Angel, a tech at the local electronic big box store that gets swept into the Heywoods quest to document the UFO. A bit of an ancient-alien conspiracy theorist himself, Angel adds a kind of youthful, eager energy to the equation. He’s reactive, but he’s energetic. If I can use my decades of tarot enthusiasm here, Angel is the Page to OJ’s King and Em’s Queen in this strange court card of a cast.

To continue that metaphor, there are two Knights with similar but very different trajectories that get drawn into things. First is Michael Wincott as Antlers Holst, a grizzled, superbass-voiced cinematographer desperate for new challenges. Second is Stephen Yeun as Ricky “Jupe” Park, a former child star who sees the UFO incident as a way to draw attention to his failing western-inspired theme park. Both men are searching for new meaning in their lives, and both have clearly been damaged by their years in the business. But whereas Holst approaches things as a brooding war veteran, Jupe is still in many ways an emotionally-scarred child unable to see beyond the immediate present.

Despite the great cast and fantastic movement, there is a caveat here. The flip side of everything is that Peele seems to have focused far more on narrative tempo and character beats than he has on metaphor and story. Whereas Get Out and Us both had powerful symbology and deep meaning attached to its scenes, Nope is far more in-the-moment. That’s not to say there isn’t metaphor there; it’s just buried a lot deeper than we’ve expected with Peele’s work. There’s a very good reason why the film focuses on people who have been at the receiving end of Hollywood’s spit-em-out cultural machine.

But to truly delve into that would require dissecting a story that, as previously stated, is much better to experience for yourself. Because that experience in and of itself is a singular thrill. A grounded, even earth-bound first act drama invisibly morphs into a spinning, scifi carnival ride of a climax, dropping some remarkably well-executed horror scenes along the way. It really feels like Jordan Peele is playing with all the tools in his box, with an emphasis on the play itself. While maybe not as thematically dense as his previous films, there’s no denying what a well-constructed and enjoyable ride this is.

FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+

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