Eadweard Muybridge is well-known for capturing some of the earliest motion pictures in history during the 1870s, particularly his famous series The Horse in Motion. But the identities of the jockeys riding the horses in those images have been lost or are uncertain. Even before cinema was an industry, the people controlling the cameras claimed all the credit. Nope, the newest horror-comedy from Jordan Peele, imagines an identity and legacy for the jockey in the most famous Muybridge horse study, featuring his self-proclaimed modern-day descendants. It’s but part of the way that Peele takes the iconography of the Western — a quintessential US artistic genre that remains in many ways tied to issues of white supremacy — and reappropriates it to create new Black heroes.
But one of the most refreshing things about Peele is that this theme is just one of the many things on his mind here. It shouldn’t feel so rare for a mainstream filmmaker to be able to create smart works with easy mass appeal, but here we are. Nope is also about the philosophy of spectacle, the attention economy, hustle culture, and, believe it or not, the treatment of animals in Hollywood, among other things. That it manages all this without holding the audience’s hand while also being consistently exciting, funny, and actually fucking scary is even more thrilling.
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One of Peele’s great talents is introducing eerie, often monumental imagery without context, and then making those images even scarier as he gradually lets the viewer in on what’s happening. (Which also lends them new significance upon rewatch.) Nope opens with shots of a bloodstained chimpanzee prowling a thrashed sitcom stage — among the wreckage is a dislocated shoe that somehow, impossibly, stands up by itself. Then Muybridge’s film of a jockey and horse is seen projected within an odd tunnel of what looks like billowing cloth, whose nature won’t be understood until much later. (And when the pin drops, it’s a doozy.) OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his father Otis Sr. (Keith David), the aforementioned claimants of that jockey’s bloodline, are at work on their ranch (they provide horses for Hollywood productions) when Otis is suddenly killed by an inexplicable shower of small metal objects. The disorienting series of unclear but frightening events perfectly sets the stage for what’s to come, as Peele slowly pulls the disparate threads together and shifts into one higher register after another, until by the end the movie becomes an exhilarating cross between War of the Worlds, Jaws, Close Encounters of the First Kind, Rio Bravo, and even Neon Genesis Evangelion and Akira.
Six months after Otis’s death, an emotionally numbed OJ and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) are mulling selling the ranch when they realize something’s going on in their Agua Dulce valley. The fatal debris came from a UFO, which seems to have parked itself within an unmoving cloud on the ridge above their ranch and has been abducting hikers and horses. The siblings resolve to get documented proof of the apparent craft as their ticket to the next level. (The “Oprah shot,” they call it in one of many cultural shoutouts that seem one-dimensional at first but grow in meaning the more you think about them.) The complication is that the UFO shuts down anything electronic near it, necessitating some clever strategizing if they’re to get that shot. Another pleasure of Peele’s films is that his characters avoid typical groan-worthy horror movie stupidity; they act the way you often imagine you would in such a situation. Here it’s even the origin of the title, repeating the refrain horror audiences so often have when watching a protagonist confronted with a stalker, or a dark hallway, or an ambiguous shape in the distance. Of course, that their savviness won’t necessarily save them is a terrific source of suspense.
Within this setup, Nope is heavily concerned with matters of witnessing, recording, and sharing experience within media. There’s a lot of talk around “being seen” or “feeling seen” now, particularly as they pertain to issues of representation in pop culture. Peele approaches such ideas from oblique angles through his premise in this film, as well as the twists he introduces to the plot (none of which I will spoil here). It has an epigraph from the Book of Nahum: “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.” Every character in the film is fixated on seeing or presenting something as a way to validate their pain; all the mayhem that ensues is Peele’s way of subtly but forcefully questioning how much of a good idea that really is. This is best exemplified through Ricky Park (Steven Yuen) the child star turned would-be impresario who runs a kitschy Old-West-themed amusement park near the Haywoods’ ranch. As a boy, he was a witness to the sitcom chimp massacre that opens the film, but now he cheerfully capitalizes on that trauma as part of his business. Ricky also has eyes on the UFO, and his own gambit to draw it out precipitates one of the more horrifying sequences of any movie in years. Sometimes the gaze can be dangerously invasive.
Nope is somewhat shaggier than Peele’s previous two films, Get Out and Us. The climactic sequence in particular almost wears out as it overextends, though it manages to recover for a spectacular finale. One prominent supporting character, Angel (Brandon Perea), is mostly an annoyance and takes a while to settle into a useful role in the story. But those problems increasingly feel like nitpicks the further away I get from watching, while the movie’s intelligence and thrills only feel more acute.
Nope opens in theaters July 22.