'Nope': Jordan Peele's Latest is an Ambitious, Highly Entertaining Thriller, and a True Spectacle
From the early moments of Nope, it is clear that Jordan Peele is primarily concerned with one specific thing: Spectacle. The film opens with a title card that quotes Nahum 3:6, which says "I will cast abominable filth upon you, Make you vile, And make you a spectacle." It's a pretty bold way to start a film, but Peele then goes one step further by cutting to one of the most surprising first shots of any movie I've seen in a while. I won't spoil what this is, but suffice it to say that it sets the tone for the strange, stunning ride we are about to go on. The film is all about spectacle, both in a technical sense and in a deeper, psychological sense. But much like his previous film, Us, Peele doesn't make this easy for the audience. One of the things I love about Peele is that he presents his ideas in a way that encourages the audience to think and doesn't give easy answers to the questions that his works pose. This can be frustrating at times, but I appreciate that he seems to trust his audience in this way. This does mean that some viewers might be put off by this and might end up disliking the film, but that seems to be a risk Peele is willing to take.
In fact, this idea is at the center of Nope. The film largely focuses on our obsession with spectacle, while also subverting the idea of it within the film. Many of the characters in the film are obsessed with spectacle in one way or another, whether they are trying to get footage of a mysterious object, give people the thrill of a lifetime, or longing for some sort of escapism. On top of this, Jordan Peele seems to explore how modern moviegoers approach film, as most are only concerned with massive setpieces and stunning visual effects. Most people only venture to the movie theater when the latest blockbuster gets released, and everything else tends to get ignored. We as humans are wired to want to see vivid imagery, which also explains why we can't look away from more visually grotesque things. Peele wants to explore why we are so attached to spectacle, and what better way than to make one himself.
Based on the marketing, the film appears to be Jordan Peele letting loose and making a big budget blockbuster. While this is still technically true, it's quite different than what modern audiences have become accustomed to in regards to blockbusters. There are some excellent special effects, great setpieces, and the film has immaculate camerawork, but it is the execution of these things that sets it apart. The film centers on siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood (played by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, respectively), who are trying to film evidence of a mysterious UFO that has appeared at their family's ranch. We get glimpses of the UFO here and there, and as a result, it lets the mystery of what it is build up throughout. So much of this film is a build, and when it gets to its big climactic setpiece, it is truly something to behold.
This doesn't discount everything before it, which is still visually stunning without fully relying on visual effects or CGI. The production design is superb, as the world of the film has such a specific look and feel to it that it doesn't feel too far removed from reality, despite the sci-fi elements at its core. One of the best examples of this is the set for Jupiter's Claim, a small amusement park owned and operated by Steven Yeun's character, Jupe. Jupiter's Claim has a western theme, and while it is kind of cartoonish, it does feel like a legitimate attraction that you could visit. It has a distinct look, and such specific details that make it stand out. The film also makes great use of a real life Fry's Electronics store in Burbank, California, which notably has a spaceship that appears to be crashing through the entrance. The film's desert setting also plays into the film nicely, as it is both beautiful and unsettling, mainly due to shots of vast landscapes. There is beauty in these moments, but there is also something foreboding in them as well.
So much of why the film's spectacle is as strong as it is is courtesy of Hoyte van Hoytema's phenomenal cinematography. It's no secret that he is one of our finest cinematographers working today. His frequent collaborations with Christopher Nolan alone make him worthy of this title, but what he does here is so fascinating. He exercises some control, but when it is time for the film's bigger moments, he captures them amazingly. His work in the film's quieter moments is still incredibly solid, though, as his composition of certain shots is masterful. There is one scene of the film that takes place in a fast-food seafood restaurant that might not mean much to some viewers, but it impressed me with its use of color, framing, and how it uses action in the background to inform some of the film's ideas. The film's opening shot is also incredibly composed, and has some smaller details that come into play later in the film. This is easily some of Van Hoytema's most interesting work, and stands as one of my favorites in his impressive filmography.
I was especially impressed by the film's score and soundtrack, which blends elements of Western music, R&B, and string instruments. The string arrangements are especially strong, and often recall Bernard Herrmann's scores that he composed for Alfred Hitchcock's films. Michael Abels has scored Jordan Peele's previous two films, but this might be his best work yet. Abels is so inventive with how he composes scores, but his work here sees him blending several different styles in a way that fits the film like a glove. If nothing else, this is his most memorable score to date, and one of the best of the year so far. Also, the sound design on this film is stellar, and plays such a big part in building tension. While so much of the film is about what we see, the way the film uses sound throughout is incredible. It creates an air of mystery, and is so effective throughout.
Unsurprisingly, one of the strongest aspects of the film is its cast. Jordan Peele's films always have a great cast, and Nope is no exception. Daniel Kaluuya gives a rather reined-in performance, but it is perfect for this character. Kaluuya has such great instincts as an actor, and is able to embody the characters he plays so fully. One of Kaluuya's greatest gifts as a performer is his non-verbal acting, and he gets several chances to showcase this throughout the film. His character, OJ, is more of the strong, silent type. He doesn't have a big personality, and he's not the most outspoken, but he is a man of action. There is one specific sequence with the UFO where he says very little, but through his physicalities and facial expressions, we can easily tell what he is feeling and thinking. This is such a fascinating performance from him, and allows him to both show some range and play to his strengths.
This film also features a career-best performance from Keke Palmer, who acts as a great complement to Kaluuya throughout the film. Palmer brings such an infectious energy to her character, and is just so genuine throughout the film. It feels like she is being herself with this character, and it is such a joy to watch. Her high energy balances with Kaluuya's more low-key characterizations perfectly, which is quickly established in their first scene together. The two have such a great dynamic, and I loved every time they shared the screen. But it is Palmer's work in the film's third act that is really sticking with me. Her character experiences such a wide array of emotions during this portion of the film, and she pulls it off beautifully. You can truly feel what she is feeling throughout these scenes, and it is easily some of the best acting I've seen from her to date. I sincerely hope that this film allows more people to see just how great of an actor Keke Palmer is, because she definitely deserves to be a bigger star than she already is.
Perhaps one of the film's most memorable characters comes in the form of Steven Yeun's Jupe, a former child actor who seeks to capitalize on his fame by opening an amusement park called Jupiter's Claim. The western themed park is inspired by Jupe's breakout role on the fictionalized movie Kid Sheriff, and is moderately successful. Jupe also has a dark past, with an incident on the set of a short-lived TV show called Gordy's Home casting a large shadow on his career. As a result, we can see his desire to put this behind him and reclaim his place in the limelight. He is a bit of a showman, but Yeun wisely avoids making him an over-the-top character. He has some personality, sure, but Yeun downplays certain aspects of the role which gives him an air of mystery. He's somewhat likable, yet something feels off about him. His true intentions are questionable, which adds to the almost off-putting undertones of the character. I kind of wish we got a little more of him throughout the film, but he definitely makes a huge impact on the film, regardless. His character is so closely tied to the themes of spectacle that Peele is exploring here, and the ways that he connects to it are surprising, yet powerful. It's such a brilliant performance from Yeun, and Jupe might be one of my favorite characters he has ever played.
The film has a solid supporting cast, but the two performances that really stood out to me were those of Brandon Perea and Michael Wincott. Perea plays Angel, an employee at Fry's Electronics that becomes intrigued with what OJ and Emerald are trying to do. He has such a natural quality to his performance that makes him feel like a regular guy. This is so needed in the film, as it allows us to connect with him rather easily. Not to mention that he gets some of the film's funnier lines, and that he holds his own alongside Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer. I definitely want to see more from him, as this has the potential to be his breakthrough performance. I was also intrigued by Michael Wincott's performance as Antlers Holst which was a genuine surprise to me. In addition to having one of the coolest character names of all time, Holst is a legendary cinematographer who gets drawn into the film's action after Emerald contacts him. Seeking to pull off "the impossible shot" (or "the Oprah shot" as the film also calls it), he joins the group to capture the imagery of the UFO. Wincott's gravelly voice and steely demeanor alone gives the character a sense of gravitas, but it bleeds into the rest of his performance as well. He is somewhat mysterious, yet so many of the smaller details of the character come together to make him more fully formed. The character itself is fascinating, and Michael Wincott is simply magnetic in the role.
Jordan Peele is undoubtedly one of the most beloved horror directors currently working, and for good reason. He tells such fascinating stories, and he has a true eye for filmmaking and crafting such terrifying imagery. He is such an ambitious filmmaker, and this is easily his most ambitious film yet. As stated above, he doesn't give the audience easy answers to the questions and ideas that he poses. This is definitely the case here, as the film is a bit of a puzzle box. By the film's end, there are still some things that aren't firmly answered, and that audiences will likely be pondering as they leave the theater. I definitely think this is a film that will benefit from multiple viewings, due to Peele's penchant for including small, yet important details in his work, and because there are specific details that might be clearer on re-watch. I would argue that the script isn't Peele's strongest work, but it is still so engaging and interesting. But even if the script falters a little in places, the direction is so incredible that it more than makes up for it. Peele truly creates a spectacle about spectacle, and he is able to take some big swings that mostly pay off. It is easily his most visually stunning film to date, and one of the most exciting summer blockbusters I've seen in a long time.
With Nope, Jordan Peele continues his excellent track record as a filmmaker, and delivers one of the most thrilling films of the year. It may be a bit divisive due to Peele's tendency to leave certain things open to the audience, but for those who are more willing to deeply engage with what he explores here, this is a phenomenal film that is more than meets the eye. It is a great examination of our obsession with spectacle, as well as a meta-narrative about making movies. It is a film that will be on my mind for a very long time, as Peele gives the audience a lot to chew on. I hesitate to call Nope his best film, but I would argue that it is close. Perhaps this might change with time, but if nothing else, it further solidifies Jordan Peele as one of the best filmmakers working today, and it is a true spectacle done in a way that only he could pull off.