Jordan Peele goes big with wild, expertly crafted "Nope"

Nope (2022)

The progression of Jordan Peele’s career as a thoughtful, original genre filmmaker who will not be pigeonholed has been exciting to track. If 2017's pointed, smartly creepy “Get Out” proved what he was capable of, 2019's “Us” was his more richly layered, next-level work worthy of debate and repeated viewings. What could possibly be next or be that ambitious? "Nope," the writer-director's third film, is Peele’s biggest and most event-like in scale, showing off all of the muscular filmmaking he’s honed already and now shooting on IMAX film cameras. It’s Peele in thrilling, comparably more digestible sci-fi summer blockbuster mode but still unmistakably Peele because you never have a clue where it’s going.

“Nope” opens with an Old Testament quote, as well as the sounds of canned laughter and cornball sitcom dialogue. Of course, all of that cheer comes to a halt with what might be the most startling, twisted, tragic, and unsettling image in the film: the aftermath of untamable violence on the set of a late-‘90s TV show starring a chimpanzee. It would seem not to fit or be of a thematic piece with what follows, but there’s always a method to Peele’s madness. After that shocking tone-setter, we go to Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, a family-owned ranch in the Agua Dulce desert north of Los Angeles. 

Daniel Kaluuya plays Otis Haywood Jr., or OJ (go ahead, it’s okay to laugh), the stoic son of father Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) who’s made a cottage industry out of wrangling horses in TV and motion pictures. The Haywoods are forgotten Hollywood royalty after their great-great-great grandfather Alistair E. Haywood was the first Black jockey to ride a horse in a motion picture (Eadweard Muybridge’s “The Horse in Motion”). Once OJ must keep the family ranch and business afloat, he’s joined by motormouth sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) for the swagger and sales part of business. When a commercial doesn’t pan out, they try selling one of their horses to former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen), who now runs a nearby Wild West theme park. Things might be okay for the Haywoods financially, until strange occurrences begin in the area. Objects mysteriously fall from the sky. Horses go missing. The electricity will brown out. Is that a UFO (or UAP)? Whatever’s in the sky and in one of the clouds is probably Not Of Planet Earth, and OJ and Em want to capture it for evidence — their "Oprah shot."

Being about adult siblings in search of the truth, the monetization of trauma in a spectacle-obsessed culture, the lack of appreciation for animal actors and their wranglers, and the extraterrestrial unknown, “Nope” is a mysterious genre work that still feeds the mind with some stealth commentary. It has shades of "Jaws," "Twister, "Signs," and “Arrival,” but with Jordan Peele's affectionate yet singularly strange vision, it’s very much its own fresh entity. As seen in Peele’s one-two punch of social-horror pictures, he knows how to maintain a nimble balance between tension and humor (a close encounter in the Haywood barn at night is one example). When we do get an even closer look inside of this farm-hovering "thing" after it abducts its latest meal, a single image is pure nightmare fuel. His script also manages to fit in so many offbeat details without feeling wedged in, like a character working on the set of an early-career Dwayne Johnson swords-and-sandals picture or the most vividly described account of a Chris Kattan-led "SNL" sketch that one wants to see live post-haste. By finding the perfect collaborators, Peele also knows how to make a film that looks and sounds spectacular. Shooting on-location in Agua Dulce certainly helps, but cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema really captures the vastness of that dusty valley day and night, forcing viewers to watch all four corners of the frame. The sight of wind dancers deflating in the no-safety-guaranteed daylight when danger is near is also such an inspired image. Composer Michael Abels’ chilling score mixes in some grand, traditional Western and adventure film beats to crowd-pleasing effect, and one may never unhear Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” the way it's used here.

Far from the smiley Chris in “Get Out,” Daniel Kaluuya has the challenge of making OJ a quiet, deadpan presence worth watching. It’s an internal performance that steadily changes as OJ comes into his own (and his wise utterances of the film’s title are very funny and relieve the tension). The bigger personality—and a much-needed foil for Kaluuya’s pensive OJ—comes in the form of Keke Palmer, a hilarious, spirited force of nature as Emerald. She’s enormously charismatic and commanding enough to sell anything through sheer energy and confidence (Em almost successfully coaxes a praying mantis off her surveillance camera with Sour Patch Kids). Wonderfully playing off one another as OJ and Em, Kaluuya and Palmer bring a jokey and tender sibling dynamic that feels totally lived-in and has our full emotional investment.

Along with Palmer, an endearing, frosted-tipped Brandon Perea (Netflix’s “The OA”) nearly runs away with the film as Angel, a nosy, recently heartbroken electronics geek who installs surveillance for the Haywood siblings and gets embroiled in their “monster umbrella” sightings. Character actor Michael Wincott, always an excitingly unpredictable presence with that gravelly voice, also adds a dose of eccentricity as caustic legendary Hollywood cinematographer Antlers Holst (great name) who comes to capture the “impossible shot.” Wincott's husky rendition of "The Purple People Eater" will not soon be forgotten.

It’s possible that not every disparate idea in Jordan Peele’s head will cohere inside ours upon just one viewing. (If everything clicked: congratulations, you're a genius.) Or, Peele just really respects the intelligence of his audience and sees no need to spoon-feed a thematic throughline or narrative connection. Or, perhaps the deeper meaning is only as deep as you make it. If “Get Out” and “Us” taught us anything, nothing is ever accidental or random with this filmmaker, and let’s take a storyteller wildly overreaching for the heavens instead of one just resting on his laurels. “Nope” may be Peele’s most straightforward (and most loosely paced) film so far, but it’s never less than expertly crafted, visually haunting, and entertaining as a big, heady popcorn movie the Peele way. As Spielberg made us not want to go in the water, Peele warns us not to look up. Let’s simplify: “Nope” is a big ol’ “yup.”

Grade: B +

Universal Pictures released “Nope” (131 min.) in theaters on July 22, 2022.