See nope before all the hype of knowledge, what I’m likely to ever experience is the closest thing to seeing Jaw hit theaters in the summer of 1975. Of all the films I’ve been lucky enough to criticize, few have been as difficult to review as Jordan Peele’s new film — not because I didn’t have much to say about it, but because I’m terribly afraid of doing too much accept.
nopeThe cunning publicity campaign has obscured much of the film’s narrative and themes (which are always the same for Peele anyway), and my fear of delving too deep doesn’t reflect that the film was made purely for the sake of revealing its heavily-guarded happenings, as well like an acknowledgment that the film is so well self-contained and original that it shouldn’t be taken in, shouldn’t be digested, other than unspoilt and whole.
The story revolves around two siblings – Otis Jr., “OJ” (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald, “Em” (Keke Palmer) – who run their family’s historical film business and compete for filming with horses. The company is called Haywood’s Hollywood Horses and the two are movie royalty, the descendants of the jockey who rode the horse in Eadweard Muybridge’s famous 1878 photographic motion study, which became the first ever film clip when their shots were projected one after the other. They live on a horse farm in a remote, picturesque valley in southern California, surrounded by luminous, dusty hills that would make John Ford drool. And in that valley, strange events are happening and OJ sees what looks like a flying saucer in the sky.
Even though nope is a true carnival for analysis, yet extraordinarily accessible and entertaining as entertainment.
The siblings are at a loss as to what to do, especially since the presence doesn’t seem exactly peaceful, but Em believes being caught on film will bring their farm exposure and money that will help them salvage their business from what it has been so far the case was on the skids since the death of her father (the great Keith David).
To stay afloat, OJ had to sell some of his horses – many to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen), a former child star and now impresario of a nearby Wild West experience, an immersive, reconstructed Wild West town. Amusement park called “Jupiter’s Claim”. Justus is the survivor of a traumatic near-death experience that took place on a television shoot he starred in as a child in which an animal went berserk, and he has processed that experience by turning it into different types of entertainment, time after time again.
This introduces the film’s main discourse, which explores the relationship between ‘spectacle’ (a catchphrase) and the experiences of horror, terror and danger; that turning frightening, unknown encounters into entertainment is how humans can deal with these things – especially unknown encounters with the natural world. The film is very much about the differences between humans and animals and the ultimate power of nature. His thesis concerns the uncertainty of human intervention, the ultimate impossibility of our attempts to control and imprison creatures and forces that are ultimately not like us. That the siblings can only try to face the UFO (a being so powerful and mysterious to them) by capturing it on film is a perfect summary of this theme. Filming something removes the viewer from the subject, makes it legible and safe.
The film has a lot to say about the differences between watching and “observing” from the safety of a simulacrum – so much that when I got home I happily pulled my old film theory textbooks off my bookshelf and flipped through essays by Christian Metz, Laura Mulvey and Thomas Elsasser. nope is so intimate and so rich and has so much to say about our relationship with film that I want to write one term paper on it instead of a review; I want to go deep into how it unfolds meaning and encourages conversation about “the gaze” and “the gaze” and other semi-Lacanian philosophies about what film and entertainment in general is really doing for us.
nope has much to say in this regard, even before establishing a familial link between itself and the first motion pictures ever made, Muybridge’s sequential photographs. The whole movie is all about cameras, all about lenses, all about shots. It is, befitting its Wild West setting, a deep reflection on ‘photographing’ something, taking its likeness and trying to recognize it visually.
While the film is a veritable carnival for analysis, it is still extraordinarily accessible and entertaining as entertainment. In fact, it’s entertainment with a big E! Although the film is not a horror film per seit levitates, building a decent amount of tension and occasionally interrupting it with genuine horrors, before galloping through its heartbreaking third act.
Peele is a master at creating iconic images, and it’s evident by watching nope how quickly so many of his aesthetic flourishes will go down in film history. In fact, the film is a visual playground that blends innovative visual touches with just the right amount of cinematic nostalgia.
His characters are also excellently designed, just archetypically enough to fit together while feeling unforgettable in their own way – brought to life by a cast of extremely talented actors. The performances in nope are among the best of the year; Palmer conjures a perfect balance of lively charisma and somber strength, while Kaluuya’s stoic brother manages (as does his strong suit) to conjure endless pathos from stillness and subtlety.
The stone Michael Wincott plays a gray-haired cameraman who’s seen it all but nothing like it – a veteran on the crew who remembers Jawis fifth. And as a talkative electronics store clerk/UFO enthusiast named Angel, who becomes increasingly intrigued by the siblings’ mission, Brandon Perea steals the show from just about everyone (a feat of atmospheric proportions).
The film was shot with IMAX cameras, so see it on this big screen if you can; It’s a movie, after all, that’s all about watching, so watch it properly. It will be another reminder of the film’s assertion that if you can’t run and you can’t hide, you can only watch.