Arriving amid a fat and pricey blitz of hype, Jordan Peele’s Nope is a willfully eccentric bear of a movie. You could call it Peelean. Like his earlier hits, Get Out and Us, the movie hews to its own logic, jolts the grim genre proceedings with deft jokes and actory energy, sprays an excess of narrative invention, and hardly knows when to quit. Peele’s ambitions as both an entertainer and as a follow-your-own-star maker of resonant pop culture are clear in every shot – particularly the first, a floor-level view of an emptied and corpse-strewn TV sitcom set, with a bloodied chimpanzee in a party hat musing over the wreckage.
Anticipating Peele’s calisthenic connections and thematic leaps is most of the fun. These days, we should be thankful for even a loopy auteur’s signature moves in a Hollywood otherwise subsumed by product-manufactured corporate boards. But Nope is weird even by Peele’s standards – a retro UFO thriller very concerned with horses. His other films are controlled burns of wacky metaphor, reflecting on Blackness and race history by way of absurdist secret communities. Nope is metaphor-free, as far as I can tell. The invader/invaders (avoiding spoilers) are a malevolent force from somewhere, and that, as they say, is that.
But Peele can’t make a simple film, and so Nope is a cannoli-stuffed with ideas and fresh dance steps. The horses are owned by the Haywood family of equine wranglers (papa Keith David, laconic bro Daniel Kaluuya, hyper-sassy sis Keke Palmer) on a ranch in a valley far but not too far from Hollywood. They claim to be the heirs of the first Black jockey photographed by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878 (he was anonymous but Peele names him here), and the wrangling-for-movies sub-industry is an interesting slice of work life we haven’t seen much since Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1982). The satiric jabs at a film set’s self-satisfied top-line talent are razor-wire sharp. In any case, this mini-dynasty collapses after David’s crusty patriarch, in an odd rain of metal objects from the sky, has an old nickel hit him square in the eye, killing him.
After that, the remaining siblings have to hustle, leasing horses out to a nearby gold rush theme park owned by an ex-child actor (Steven Yuen), who was hiding under a table years earlier when that chimp ran amok. There’s also a grizzled cinematographer with a death wish (Michael Wincott), a zealous tech-store clerk (Brandon Perea), and, pivotally, a giant flying saucer hiding in an unmoving cloud just over the hills. The exact nature of this thing – its makeup, its intent, its potential for mayhem – is something Peele’s movie takes its sweet time uncovering (running time is 2.25 hours). The assaults, when they start coming, can be hairy, largely due to the roaring sound mix, by far the scariest thing in the movie.
Peele is flexing his glutes here, daring to indulge himself not only with deafening spectacle of a strangely untextured sort – we learn very little about the phenomenon that drives the plot), but in the film’s proliferating digressions and detours. There are unnecessary conversations (Yuen has a lengthy speech about SNL and Chris Kattan that’s a complete head-scratcher), extraneous subplots (that tantalizing when-chimps-attack backstory is completely unrelated to the primary action), and goofy character business. At times Nope feels like the UFO action film Quentin Tarantino might’ve made, down to the old film-geek references, fringe Hollywood milieu, and gabby monologues. QT is by now beloved for his windy idiosyncracies, but is Peele? We’ll see.
There’s no denying that Peele’s unsurprisingly expert comic rhythm translates smoothly to cutting, action and suspense. Nope’s first half exudes such a pungent sense of menace that the last hour can’t quite make the payoff. Which leaves you plenty of time to ponder the film’s absence of subtextual torque, and the fact that the mechanics of the story are often inexplicable gibberish. (Honestly, neither Get Out nor Us made a whole lot of sense, either.) There are motifs that function as plot devices, but it’s not clear why. Balloons and strings of pennant flags vs. chimpanzees and aliens? Aliens don’t like horses?
There’s also an unexplained shoe magically balanced on its heel in the chimp scenes – and later framed on the wall in Yuen’s office. No other shoes were harmed in the making of this film. You’d be hard pressed to summarize the characters’ plan to rescue their horse farm (they could just leave, with the horses, at any time), which involves a lot of riding out into the valley and back again… and balloons. The protracted climax is a vast CGI orchid-bloom of who knows what. In the end, even M. Night Shymalan’s dubious Signs was more coherent.
Does it matter? If Nope were indexing race, or some other larger subject (like the potentially hazardous use of animals on film sets) in a more significant way, then maybe not. (White Dog did both.) Anyway, the cast are a blast and they carry the film– Kaluuya and Palmer in particular are a sparking set of contrasts, glowering toast-dry cool and pixie-ish chili-pepper hot. Eighty minutes of their banter, plus a rampaging chimp, would’ve been fine.