Written and directed by Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele returns with a sci-fi western blend, and reunites with Daniel Kaluuya, who answers the question suburban dads have been asking of movies for decades: “Whatever happened to the strong, silent type?”
Peele’s films so far have traded in the supernatural, and this time is no different. I won’t get into specifics, but suffice to say Nope is throwback fare, paying homage to films with resilient and intrepid homesteaders as protagonists who despite the trouble brewing on the horizon decide to stand their ground, for better or worse.
Kaluuya is OJ Haywood, who’s a horse wrangler for Hollywood productions. It’s not glamorous, but he’s intensely proud of it, even if he doesn’t let it show. It’s a family business, and his dad did it well, so there’s a standard and legacy to uphold. Then a freak accident leaves the business in OJ’s hands, and he’s trying hard to keep it afloat on his own, with his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer with real chaotic energy) slowly branching out.
There’s a story arc of sibling reconciliation for these two, but it’s more of a detail in a film about the experience of coming face to face with what you thought impossible. Peele, whose films Get Out and Us brought the creep, instead goes for grandiose terror with Nope. It begins with screams in the wind, disappearing acts, and fully blooms with some stellar work by the artists of the special effects crew in realizing the phenomenon that’s to blame.
It’s spooky, then thrilling and exciting throughout. Peele has an uncanny ability to make you laugh while your heart’s also in your throat, and that alone is its own rare pleasure. Fright and the urge to laugh are like kissing cousins – too close for comfort. No one seems as capable of hitting that elusive note as Peele.
Nope stands out for bringing the archetype of a strong, silent protagonist into the 21st century. Our tough guys have become quippy superheroes in tights, yapping away as they go about their duties; if not that, they’re militant gun nuts whose love language is excessive violence. They are far from relatable and far from the idea of an everyman who reluctantly gets swept up in something much bigger than themselves. Kaluuya, Peele and Nope bring him back into the fold.
OJ is that reluctant everyman, initially just hoping to make his family proud by carrying on its business, but then rising to the occasion when called upon. Kaluuya’s work in illustrating OJ’s repression and burnt-in frustration is masterful and when the heat’s on, he’s as cool as they come (or you can expect them to be). No flash, all fire.
Both Get Out and Us were creative, original works heavily reliant on the mystery behind their frightening concepts. Nope doesn’t quite match up in this regard, but the more obvious arc does see Peele able to focus his considerable storytelling powers on maximizing what’s on screen, making for a more solid experience.
While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of his debut feature, Nope is exhilarating fun, and anyone who enjoyed Encounters of the Third Kind and Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special can seek this out too for action-packed science fiction.