In a cinematic landscape increasingly walled off to all but the surest of known-commodity IPs, one can’t help but feel that Jordan Peele snuck in. Peele wasn’t unknown in the 2010s, of course, thanks to his buzzy Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele. Few, however, could have anticipated Peele’s directorial debut: Get Out, an instant horror classic which perfectly captured the bad weirdness of the Trump era before much of white America could even smell the gas. Peele’s follow-up, Us, didn’t quite capture the zeitgeist like its predecessor (it is, to be sure, less easily parsed than the former’s lean, Twilight Zone parable), but it too was an unqualified hit, and its wild ambition and deft tension proved Peele as more than a one-trick pony. Peele’s latest film, Nope, finds him swinging unabashedly for the blockbuster fences, but where this impulse might have caused another filmmaker to sand off some of their rougher edges, Nope only solidifies Peele’s standings as one of Hollywood’s true originals– at a time when those are fewer and farther between than ever.
In true summer-movie-event fashion, Nope opens on a classic American tableau shattered by the uncanny: Hollywood horse wrangler Otis Haywood (Keith David), riding his faithful steed across his secluded ranch, is killed by an unexplained hail of pocket change and detritus from the sky. The authorities are baffled, blaming the Fortean event on a passing private plane (but why would the pilot dump his car keys?). Haywood’s business is left in the hands of his children, taciturn rancher OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and charismatic hustler Emerald (Keke Palmer), but neither possess their father’s mix of intuition and people skills; to keep the property afloat, OJ rents out horses to a local wild-west theme park owned by former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen).
But while business has dried up, all is not quiet on the range: ever since Otis Senior’s death, the horses have been acting peculiarly and the property has been plagued by mysterious blackouts– building, inevitably, to a glimpse of an enormous flying disc in the night sky. OJ sees this airborne intruder as a “bad miracle,” but Emerald sees dollar signs: if they can capture and sell convincing video evidence of the phenomenon– the “Oprah shot,” as she puts it– they can put an end to their money woes. Enlisting the help of eager Geek Squadder Angel (Brandon Perea) and maverick cinematographer Holst (Michael Wincott), they outfit the ranch with surveillance cameras and steal a plaster horse from Jupe’s park as “bait.” To reveal any more would be to spoil much of the fun, but suffice to say that getting the Oprah Shot is easier said than done, especially where UFOs (or “UAPs,” as Angel frequently corrects) are concerned.
Though neither Get Out nor Us lack ambition, there is an intimacy to both, their characters largely confined to closed quarters (at least until the breathtaking final aerial shot of the latter). Nope, by contrast, sees Peele expanding his canvas to 65mm IMAX grandeur, and the result is startling in its confidence. Peele shoots the rolling prairies of Agua Dulce, California as if they were the craters of Mars, his characters dwarfed by the awe of the universe even before the aliens show up. There is none of the we’ll-fix-it-in-post indecision which leads to the muddiness of so many contemporary CGI-addled popcorn films; Peele clearly knows where he wants to place the camera, and stages his action legibly and with purpose. Movies have been optimized for tablet-viewing for so long that it’s startling to see an action spectacle with such clear visual cohesion; I caught a preview screening in IMAX, and recommend doing the same if possible.
To declare a Hollywood filmmaker “the next Spielberg” is, at this point, the equivalent of naming a singer-songwriter the next Dylan, a hack cliche at best and, at worst, a critical death sentence (it took poor M. Night Shyamalan decades to return to grace once it became clear that he was doing his own, decidedly weirder thing). But there is a bravado to Peele’s work that harkens back to Spielberg’s early thrillers– Jaws and Close Encounters, of course, but even more so Duel. So much of Hollywood has been fashioned in Spielberg’s image for so long that it’s easy to forget how lean and wildly inventive those early films are, and where contemporary Spielberg acolytes like J.J. Abrams and Colin Trevorrow contort themselves to recreate the aesthetic sheen of his best-loved work, Peele effortlessly captures the film-brat braininess that animates them. By the time I came around Spielberg was a fact of life; watching Peele’s work in real time, I can imagine what it must have been like to watch him evolve.
Of course, Jordan Peele is not Steven Spielberg, and his films are most exciting in the ways that they break convention. Consider, for example, Daniel Kaluuya’s performance, which may be the most quietly revolutionary thing I’ve seen in a mainstream movie in quite some time. There is a tendency among blockbuster leads to play to, if not the rafters, then at least the gum-snapping kids in the audience, with larger-than-life reactions and timed-to-the-crescendo one-liners. Kaluuya, by contrast, gives a complex and nuanced performance, internal almost to the point of sub-verbal. Kaluuya communicates OJ’s rich backstory– the tough love of his father, the hazards of animal stuntwork, the sadly inevitable microaggressions to be found as a Black man in a predominantly white industry– with little more than a repertoire of glances and silences and sighs. When the alien presence becomes apparent, we can see the calculation behind his hooded eyes; when Emerald takes control of the situation, we can tell from his slumped shoulders that he knows there’s nothing he can do to stop her. Though not as dazzling as Lupita Nyong’o’s in Us, it’s no less impressive a performance; one can understand why Peele recently referred to the actor as “my De Niro.”
The rest of the film is no less deceptively layered, its alien-invasion sheen masking the unmistakable satirical mind behind Get Out. Note that, unlike most popcorn heroes, OJ and Emerald’s goal is not to stop the alien threat, but simply to capture footage of them– even as the body count mounts. Indeed, Nope is just as much about the menace of the movie industry as it is about the dangers of little green men; the Haywoods, as well as Jupe, are trying to pull their lives back together after being spit out by the Hollywood machine (there is a particularly harrowing flashback to Jupe’s younger years which stands as a perfectly self-contained horror mini-movie in its own right, and may be my halftime pick for scene of the year). Then there are the horses themselves, put to work in an industry they cannot possibly comprehend, to appear in movies they will never watch. While I am again hesitant to discuss the details of the film’s second and third acts for fear of spoilers, suffice to say that Nope may have more to say about the ethical pitfalls of animal training than any fiction film since Sam Fuller’s White Dog; this aspect of the film, perhaps more than any other, will surely be discussed for years to come.
As you may have gleaned by now, there is a lot going on in Nope, and there are moments when it almost strains under its own heft; as in Us, the climax continues perhaps five or ten minutes past the point of exhaustion. But in a time where we’re left to scrounge for crumbs of auteurism in the tenth installments of mindless action franchises, “too many ideas” is the sort of problem I welcome with open arms, and I’m looking forward to seeing what I pick up on when I see it again this weekend (I already have my ticket). Nope is that rarest of Hollywood beasts: a layered, piercingly smart original film which also functions perfectly well as a beat-the-heat summer thrill ride. Jordan Peele is not the next Steven Spielberg; he’s the first Jordan Peele, and that’s far more exciting.
dir. Jordan Peele
Opens Thursday, 7/21 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre, Somerville Theatre, and pretty much everywhere else