Jordan Peele is a filmmaker that arrived in 2017 with style and has yet to leave the public consciousness. Like most people, I loved Get Out and eagerly waited to see what Peele would come up with next. That movie is thematically satisfying and delivers a round of great performances headed by Daniel Kaluuya’s star-making role as Chris. 2019’s Us was more opaque and required serious thought, whereas Get Out stated its themes outright. Us featured another fantastic star in Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide, but it was a movie I appreciated more than enjoyed. I’ve been intrigued by Nope since I heard about it. Aside from re-teaming Peele and Kaluuya, Nope’s trailers were intense, and I was encouraged to see Keke Palmer again. I liked her as a kid, but I haven’t seen her in anything in a few years. I intentionally didn’t know much about the story going in, assuming it would be another horror/suspense drama from Peele. Let’s have a look.
Nope follows an unlikely duo in the Haywoods, a brother and sister pair who inherit a horse ranch when their father (Keith David) passes away under mysterious circumstances. OJ (Kaluuya) is the ever-dutiful son, working alongside his father and taking over the operation after his death. Meanwhile, Emerald (Palmer) is more of a free spirit, bouncing from one hookup to the next and tempting OJ to waste time. On top of a failing business and the prospect of being forced to sell his father’s horses, OJ is faced with Em’s meddling and the emergence of mysterious power outages. One night, OJ sees something in the sky that he just can’t forget. In buying security cameras, the Haywoods inadvertently enlist Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), a tech store employee who offers more than just a free installation.
I’ve never been a big fan of horror; in fact, romance is probably the only genre of film that I watch and enjoy less. The one thing these two genres share that contributes to my distaste is the reliance on flat characters and tropes. Don’t get me wrong; every genre has tropes, and being unpredictable doesn’t make a movie good. There are plenty of predictable movies out there that I love. But I don’t care whether or not a couple stays together if that’s the movie’s only conflict and I don’t like the leads. Likewise, I don’t care if your movie monster or slasher kills everyone on Earth if I don’t feel for the characters. A good movie will make up for a played-out story with engaging characters and visuals regardless of genre. This is where Jordan Peele comes in; outside of classic monster movies, this guy seems to be the key to good cinematic horror. He has an eye for the dramatic and consistently rounds up impressive casts, but most importantly, his leads are always charismatic and sympathetic.
Nope is no exception, but I was surprised to find OJ as the protagonist. Based on the marketing, I had assumed the loud, peppy Emerald was the film’s hero. This seems like an intentional choice, too. Emerald is the people person; she deals with potential business partners, hires a cameraman, and openly flirts with strangers. OJ is quiet and subtle, taking time to drink everything in and consider every angle. OJ isn’t fun and sociable like his sister, but he’s thoughtful and loyal to a fault. Em thinks OJ’s dumb for not selling the ranch at the first opportunity, but he can’t let go of his father’s legacy. Neither personality type is right or wrong, and actually, they make an excellent team when Em isn’t too busy pushing her side hustles or seeking out her next future ex. But making OJ the point of view character works so well because his words are few, and his body language speaks volumes. I enjoyed Daniel Kaluuya in Black Panther and Judas and the Black Messiah, but Nope is my favorite performance from him since Get Out. He’s far more subdued here, but the impact is just as great. Jordan Peele knows just how to frame Kaluuya’s distinctive features and draw out these dramatic, visceral gestures from him. Palmer is a revelation as Emerald, a role unlike anything I’ve ever seen from her. I always liked her, but this feels like a comeback moment for the still-young actress. Keith David will always be one of my favorites for his work in voice acting, particularly as Goliath in Gargoyles. I was delighted to discover he was playing OJ and Emerald’s dad Otis, then disappointed when he was killed early on in the movie. Thankfully, Otis appears in a couple of flashbacks throughout the film. David’s screen presence is undeniable, fatherly and imposing against Kaluuya’s timid curiosity. These two work well as a father and son; they even sound alike, with Kaluuya expertly matching David’s deep voice and elocution.
Steven Yeun has a more significant part in Nope than I expected as Ricky Park, the owner of a neighboring amusement park. He strikes me as an empath and an opportunist, meeting a given person at their energy level. Ricky’s all business with OJ, but jumps right into Emerald’s enthusiasm for his TV memorabilia, chattering giddily about the backstory behind each piece. I don’t know Brandon Perea from anything else, but he successfully conveys Angel’s initial indifference and relative creepiness, finally making him strangely endearing. If it’s not clear yet, the first word that comes to mind with Nope is “surprising.” Another pleasant revelation is Michael Wincott, who I didn’t know was in this. Wincott is another fantastic character actor you may know from The Crow or Disney’s version of The Three Musketeers. Here, he plays Antlers Holst, an eccentric, obsessive cinematographer who’s out to get the impossible shot. I’m going to leave it at that; this character shocked me, and I don’t want to ruin that for you.
Nope is a love letter to entertainment, but more specifically, to the unsung heroes of the craft. Cameramen. Stunt doubles. Horse trainers. Heck, the animals themselves! But it doesn’t stop there, offering a searing critique on gossip culture and internet fame seekers. OJ’s ultimate success comes not only in surviving an insurmountable obstacle but in taking ownership of his family’s storied history. One of my favorite scenes comes near the end when he cements himself as a hero, boldly riding out into enemy territory on the back of Lucky, an equally defiant horse in need of a second chance. I think what ties the whole experience together is the meshing of the horror, sci-fi, and Western genres, the latter of which I truly was not expecting. Much of the music by Michael Abels and the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema harken back to classic Westerns, painting OJ as a valiant frontiersman protecting his own.
Nope is a great time at the movies. It’s exciting, gorgeous, and wildly creative. I highly recommend seeing this one in theaters, and preferably before any of the big moments get spoiled. My only gripe with the film is personal: I wanted to see more of Keith David! He has a great rapport with his onscreen son, and I love his acting.