Let’s get a couple of things out of the way: Nope is writer/director/producer Jordan Peele’s greatest film. Nope is the best picture of 2022. Nope is the most intelligent, sophisticated, thought provoking movie to debut since the onset of the pandemic. Nope easily sits at the top of the list of the strongest horror films of the past decade. Peele achieves this and more by balancing the grandiose visual spectacle of an IMAX movie with restrained, “less is more” storytelling, casting all-star performers for each role in this ensemble production, and reaching new heights with allegorical storytelling which can stand on its own as a tightly constructed narrative on the surface level.
This review contains no spoilers because Nope is best experienced when the viewer goes in knowing the least about it. The film opens on the set of a nineties family sitcom production in the midst of terrifying tragedy involving a trained chimpanzee that’s snapped. We are then introduced to a Black family of Hollywood horse wranglers with roots to the humble beginnings of the motion picture, who have fallen on hard times following the arrival of a “bad miracle.” These scenes are tense and engaging, and they force viewers to put on their thinking caps and make literal and metaphorical connections between these two events for the remainder of the film… and likely for hours and days after seeing it.
The trailer for Nope makes us believe it’s about UFOs, but it literally and figuratively isn’t. This experience of comparing what we remember about the trailer to the film in progress may be our first exercise in coming to grips with one of the film’s many provocative statements: we may see something with our eyes and remember it vividly, but what we remember might not be exactly what we’ve seen. Peele drives this idea home mainly through his characters’ personal trauma, both big and small. Whether it’s a grown woman who still feels resentment over not being able to train a horse she thought was hers when she was a child or a grown man who can’t examine his personal place in that fateful chimpanzee attack unless it’s through pop culture’s repackaging and bastardization of said event, Peele examines how the portrayal and infliction of trauma, both big and small, is the true currency of the entertainment industry… a point all the more troubling in a world governed by a gig economy and social media influencers. As Keke Palmer’s Emerald Haywood says early on in the film during a moment of self promotion, “We have skin in the game.”
Peele layers his imagery and dialogue in such a way that these lines and quips will come back to haunt the viewer far after the credits roll. There isn’t one moment of this movie which wouldn’t benefit from being seen more than once and contemplating its metaphorical significance and how it fits into the larger picture Peele is painting. But do you have to do that in order to enjoy the movie? Nope. The film is just as effective as a big budget science fiction movie about a family of horse wranglers who set out to tame the ultimate wild animal against all odds. I wouldn’t advise it, but if you wanted to you could turn your mind off and join these characters on the wild ride of a summer blockbuster on the big screen and walk out of the theater with a smile on your face. And that’s the mark of an excellent allegorical movie: it has to hit the mark both above and below the surface. Us, Peele’s second film, struggled to achieve this balance because it, “is a movie that relies much more heavily on allegory than story, and the story suffers as a result.” Nearly every moment of Us hammered away at its deeper meaning to the point that it became distracting and nonsensical as a straightforward horror movie. Whether it’s because Peele has become more confident as a storyteller, the studio gave him more leeway on his third film due to the critical and financial successes of his earlier works, or some other reason, Nope both trusts its audience more and doesn’t seem to care if everyone catches all of its fascinating nuances. This makes the movie much stronger, and it makes all attempts at analysis much more rewarding for the viewer because each new nugget of thought is hard earned.
Remaining consistent with this “less is more” approach to storytelling, Peele achieves all of this with a small but very efficient ensemble cast. Daniel Kaluuya delivers his greatest performance yet as OJ Haywood, the reserved, laconic, cowboy type of few words who feels as if he’s from another era. His restraint and anti-showmanship serve as an antidote to the existential threat Peele presents, and we’d probably all be okay if we could look away and say, “Nope” with the same level of conviction as OJ exudes. Despite his limited lines, Kaluuya steals the show with his body language and physical emotions, and he still manages to nab the biggest laughs in the movie. It’s a masterclass in old Hollywood acting. In contrast to Kaluuya’s OJ, Steven Yeun’s Ricky “Jupe” Park is the former child actor whose greatest claim to fame is being on the receiving end of a chimp attack and grew up learning all of the wrong lessons. He’s still out there seeking to profit off of the mid-budget spectacle of his sparsely-attended western-themed amusement park and rodeo shows, featuring performance roles for his wife and kids. Keke Palmer’s Emerald best balances the extremes of self preservation and showmanship seen on OJ and Ricky, and her experience of growing up as the only girl on a horse ranch has made her a fighter. She’s consistently funny and quick-witted, and Palmer does an excellent job of delivering many of the film’s sharp lines that Peele is known for. Brandon Perea and Michael Wincott round out the cast as Angel Torres and Antlers Holst, an inquisitive Fry’s Electronics employee and a movie director obsessed with capturing the most dangerous moments of nature on film. These two characters help fill the supporting archetype roles of the secondary characters in big budget spectacles with similar messages such as Jurassic Park and King Kong. Perea is especially effective at comedic relief and Wincott pulls off the grizzled old timer who has seen it all before. All of these actors combined have exceptional chemistry which brings the story to life in a big way. Peele has always had an eye for talent, and once again he’s perfectly cast another one of his movies.
Nope is Peele’s biggest movie, with sprawling sets and massive outdoor environments. He shoots these locations so they feel big and expansive, and the shots are both beautiful and overwhelming in the Imax format. The flashbacks on the set of Gordy’s Home feel more like Get Out and Us because they give Peele an opportunity to revisit constricting shots, tight corridors, and fear lurking behind every corner, but Nope shows he can still achieve legitimate fear in open spaces and broad daylight… a far more difficult task than achieving what’s possible in traditional horror settings. The movie is nice to look at, and it benefits greatly from the Imax format.
And maybe that’s the point: a big, sprawling outdoor motion picture can achieve the same level of scares and terror in the viewer so long as it sticks to the fundamental truths of horror, just like how the movie might suggest that somebody’s “Oprah moment” is still just a higher class stage to reveal the same kind of personal trauma which might appear in lesser formats for the sake of an audience’s indulgence and the dollar signs which follow.
With this being a spoiler-free review, there are still a ton of things left to say about Nope. It’s intriguing, it’s funny, it’s scary, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Go see it because it’s excellent.