With both Get Out and Us, Jordan Peele introduced the world to some of the monsters living inside his imagination that were born out of his deep-seated love for the horror genre. While Nope — Peele’s third feature with Universal — definitely runs on the distressing, disorienting energy his projects have become known for, it also feels like the director’s first movie that’s actually about filmmaking as a thrilling and terrifying art form.
Nope tells the story of the Haywoods, a family of Black ranchers who made a name for themselves raising stunt horses for film and television productions. While patriarch Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) always expected that his son Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and daughter Emerald (Keke Palmer) would eventually take over the family business, none of them ever imagined that Otis Sr. would suddenly and quite mysteriously die after a strange encounter with an innocuous cloud.
The Haywood siblings are still grieving in their respective ways as Nope opens on Otis Jr. (who goes by OJ) doing what he can to maintain Haywood’s Hollywood Horses and Emerald making it very clear that she’s ready to become a part of the showbiz in a non-equine capacity. Like with most siblings, there’s tension between OJ and Em that Nope brushes up against without veering too far off course. But their father’s death brings Em and OJ closer in a way that properly sets Nope’s story in motion and illustrates one of the film’s most salient ideas about what it means to work in the entertainment industry — particularly as a person of color.
Unlike OJ, the family’s soft-spoken stoic who prefers the company of horses, Emerald inherited their father’s showmanship and deep pride in their great-great-grandfather, the unnamed Black jockey depicted in Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion cabinet 1878 card series. Blessedly, racism (or some anthropomorphization of it) is not the frightening menace that eventually gets Nope’s characters uttering the movie’s title aloud. But the specter of it is present in the way Nope connects The Horse in Motion’s jockey to his fictional descendants: skilled professionals whose talents go largely underappreciated and overlooked by others in the industry, like famed director Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott).
Even those willing to do business with the Haywoods, like former child actor turned local show cowboy Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), are hesitant to see them as more than the people who tend to animals — people so low on the call sheet that they’re almost invisible. That sense of being boxed in by others’ preconceptions is one of the ways Nope starts to build up an atmosphere of dread long before any of its human characters realize that they aren’t alone out there in the desert.
OJ doesn’t really want to believe his eyes when he witnesses something strange one evening while chasing down an escaped horse, and he’s loath to tell his sister. But he can’t deny hearing the sound of screams echoing through the canyons whenever one of the strange power outages that’s been plaguing their ranch sets in, and before long, Em, too, catches a glimpse of the alarming sight that put her brother on edge. If you’ve seen any of Nope’s trailers or its very effective posters, then you likely know what kind of creatures its story revolves around. But instead of trying to present itself as a wholly new spin on the kind of film it appears to be, Nope exceeds by going a bit meta as its heroes realize that they’re going to have to fight for their lives using, among other things, cameras.
Peele has always had an eye for bold, visual storytelling, but there’s a majesty to Nope’s sweeping shots of the California desert that feels reflective of his evolution as a filmmaker and of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s artistic sensibilities. Nope’s striking, almost portrait-like shots of its heroes immediately call to mind Western classics like Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher as OJ and Em’s ranch becomes their new base of operations where they plan to photograph and document whatever it is that’s hunting them and their neighbors. But the slick and imaginative ways that Nope repeatedly reminds you of the danger that OJ and Em must face has much more in common with the likes of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block.
As characters, both OJ and Em are so firmly within Kaluuya and Palmer’s wheelhouses that they have a way of feeling like archetypical performances you’ve seen from them before, but it works within the context of Nope’s slightly amped-up reality. Palmer in particular shines with an easy exuberance that feels entirely her own, and Kaluuya embodies the precise kind of laconic cowboy masculinity that defined the leading men of movies like George Stevens’ Shane.
Neither of the Haywoods feel quite like “real” people but rather like heightened personifications of artists hungry to become part of the movie-making business — no matter the cost. Foolhardy as their plan to stand their ground while documenting their confrontation with the creatures is, it makes a certain kind of emotional sense when you step back and look at Nope as a text about people pouring everything they have into getting the perfect shot.
Nope leaves itself far less open to interpretation than Peele’s previous films, and it’s better for it as the movie shifts gears in order to give itself ample time to show off its VFX budget. Nope lays all its cards on the table with a series of truly breathtaking and astounding set pieces that speak to Peele’s ability to conjure large-scale horrors that are just as nightmarish as the smaller, more intimate ones we’re accustomed to seeing from him.
Though its straightforwardness and focus on spectacle over subtlety might not quite be what audiences expect from a Monkeypaw feature, Nope’s a strong entry from Peele and a sign that the director’s still got plenty of heat left to spare.
Nope also stars Brandon Perea, Terry Notary, Andrew Patrick Ralston, and Jennifer Lafleur. The movie hits theaters on July 22nd.