“What’s a bad miracle? They got a word for that?” is a question asked early on in Jordan Peele’s NOPE, the latest from the director who has already made a name for himself as a horror genius. The question which is asked by animal wrangler OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) is one that is only asked by somebody who has seen something they can’t explain but knows is not quite right. Thus is the basis for NOPE a terrific spectacle of a film that shows how the director is not just growing as a filmmaker, but continuously finding ways to honor his idols while still bringing his unique voice to the game. This is another close up lens look at human behavior as much as it is a summer blockbuster. Add to all this the film is quite terrifying just maybe not in the way you’d fully expect based on Peele’s last two films. Peele again turn its focus on us the viewer, but this time around it chooses a form of catch-22 to prove his point. NOPE is concerned about our obsession with the spectacle, but ironically shows this by giving us a film riddled with giant blockbuster moments. A clever but also ironic trick done by Peele. NOPE with all its intellect is also just another throwback to summer fun at the movies where every moment counts and you thankfully get more than what you bargained for.
The Haywood farm is Hollywood royalty, even if they have been put out to pasture by a changing system (one changing for the worse that is.) Haywood farms run by Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) is the first all Black run horse farm in Hollywood. OJ and his siter Emerald (Keke Palmer commanding the screen) must keep the farm alive after the brutal and mysterious death of their father. This is done by taking any animal wrangler gig that still tries to use real life animals instead of CGI. OJ much like his horses are tired and Emerald just turns up to deliver hilarious (but important) speeches about the origin of their farm. It turns out their great great (there’s another great) grandfather was the man riding a horse in the first assembled pictures that formed a motion picture. Emerald proclaims this interesting fact to a group of uninterested (and mostly white) filmmakers who you could just tell would easily skip any safety meeting the Haywood’s deliver if it wasn’t legally mandatory. It serves as a reminder of how easily we are to forget the actual history and importance of others in our own craft. The disregard for Black people’s importance in the making of the film can only speak wonders when showing how one goes about the respect for their craft. This also includes the treatment of costars that can’t speak for themselves. For a time when it may be easier to just CGI an animal than actually use a live one on set NOPE brings up the scenario that while this is true it is also not the animals’ fault, but instead an outcome after decades of mistreatment towards these animals on and off set. A lot to take in and all before visitors from above come into play.
The lack of people asking for horses is not the Haywood farm’s only problem. No right next door is off the beaten path amusement park Jupiter’s Claim run by Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (a stellar Steven Yeun). Jupe a former child actor who experienced a horrific event on the set of his first show is hellbent on turning his tragedy into profit. ‘Jupe” fits the whole “will build a theme park instead of go to therapy” vibe as he shows off to Emerald and OJ a small museum in his office dedicated to this tragedy that involved bloodshed and a family sitcom involving a chimpanzee named Gordy (performed by movement specialist Terry Notary). Yeun is phenomenal as he plays out both victim and total creep. Think Dennis Reynolds mixed with Corey Matthews all dressed up in red sparkly cowboy get. ‘Jupe’ keeps buying out OJ’s horses and eventually offers to buy out the farm leading OJ and Emerald to contemplate their future and put their thoughts to the clouds. If only they knew what they would mean for them for in Peele’s world looking up to the sky may cost you your life.
Without saying too much (seriously see this film before its all spoiled) OJ quickly believes he has seen something moving in the clouds. A UFO seems like the quick guess especially when mysterious winds approach power outages occur nightly and all their animals seem to be terrified of something larger. So just as any of us would OJ and Emerald seek out to document whatever is in the clouds, get the “Oprah shot” and hopefully become famous. With the assistance of tech store employee Angel (a hilarious Brandon Perea reminding us all of our Ancient Aliens obsession) the film finds its way into Close Encounters territory but with more respect and less tribute as the film’s main concern is the irony that two siblings raised on respecting animals are doing everything they can to capture one even if it means tormenting the creature. In documenting the chaos that ensues on the farm NOPE also becomes about our obsession with constantly watching violence and pain inflicted on others. Even when it becomes clear that looking into the eyes of the storm will be your demise we still can’t turn away. The Haywood’s can’t look away from whatever is in the clouds, Jupiter’s Claim is a park built on tragedy and us the audience can’t stop looking at what’s in front of us even when the images are horrific. Is Peele being a hypocrite by doing this? If he is than Spielberg is one too when he made Jaws the blueprint movie about man’s obsession with harnessing chaos. But instead of hypocrisy one just sees genius displayed on the screen. This is also credit to Peele’s’ directing, at sixty-eight million this is his largest budget yet, (a long way from the four million Get Out) and with the assistance of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, the film delivers stunning shots that are as large as they come demanding to be seen in the biggest and loudest theater you can find. This is still a summer blockbuster after all and all the thrills come fully into play once the Haywoods hire documentarian Antlers Holt (Michael Wincott bringing his chilling deep voice with him) to help get the perfect shot. Even as Holt warns against the dangers of “climbing too far up the mountain” can’t help but find himself fascinated by getting the perfect shot and the film goes again in full Jaws mode as it wonderfully uses the farm as its vessel.
NOPE at over two hours takes its time and finds exciting ways to go off the beaten path. Those familiar and excited to see another Get out or Us may find themselves confused by choices Peele makes with his editing, including extensive long shots and dividing the film into chapters. By doing this however Peele has allowed for his films final act to feel more than earned and while Emerald and OJ are not given the most in depth backstory both Palmer and Kaluuya are terrific in performances that would see awards love in a better world. Palmer known more for her social media and red carper interviews than she is for dramatic roles brilliantly controls every moment. Her curiosity and excitement spills out just as much as her pain and lover for her family. Kaluuya gets to take on the quiet cowboy role that so many Black men before him have mastered but have unfortunately been lost in Hollywood’s history. For all its spectacle NOPE is also a gentle western as seen by OJ who wants to ride off into the sunset once all the chaos dies down. Hopefully with films like this and last years’ The Harder They Fall and Concrete Cowboys there can be a much needed renaissance of the Black cowboy. Honoring the past, resurging history, trauma observation and audience self-reflection, there is just a sky full of ideas circulating here and there will be many more brought up as time goes by (the film screams rewatch). Peele has proven once again that he is one of the more unique voices delivering original content and deserves every bit of acclamation. NOPE is not just the movie event of the summer but one that will inspire your own peculiar ideas. Just don’t look up to the clouds for inspiration.
NOPE IS NOW IN THEATERS