Review: Nope

When you’ve made two novel, distinctive and memorable horrors like Jordan Peele has with Get Out and Us, your next film is always going to be really intriguing to those who enjoyed your first two. Third time around as writer and director, Peele continues on his path of sci-fi inflected horror with Nope, a film dripping with tension but featuring a hefty dose of spectacle, and balancing multiple genres effortlessly.

In the Californian desert, O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) try to keep their dad’s horse training business going, offering horses to Hollywood and more besides. However, after a mystery death hits the family and other strange occurrences start piling up, the siblings realise they may well live in the presence of something otherworldly, and – being 21st century people – decide to try and catch it on film to make money. Sooner rather than later, the film’s title is regularly invoked as the pair realise what they’re dealing with…

Following up his first two movies (or, more specifically, following up the smash hit that was Get Out) was always going to be a challenge for Peele, but with Nope he’s clearly still got a strong handle on merging genres, tones and themes intelligently together for laughs and scares. What Nope adds to his filmography is spectacle and tropes as well as imagery from the Western – surprisingly – along with the obvious shift into even more fantastical science-fiction.

With the epic lens and washed-out, widescreen cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema (who previously worked on Dunkirk and Tenet, among other films), Peele blends some Spielbergian vistas, unforgettable images and tension into his already impressive array of abilities. If you’ve seen War of the Worlds or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you’ll know that Spielberg can do awesome alien and invasion imagery that makes you hold your breath, and isn’t quickly forgotten.

Here, Peele and Hoytema utilise an almost too-good-to-be-true canyon, valley and mountains as the vista upon which everything takes place – and from grafting the arid, dry landscapes more known from Westerns (often filmed in these areas) onto a story largely focused on criticising the idea of capturing spectacle in the modern world, we’re treated to a really clever blend of “wow, what did I just see” moments and laugh-out-loud, modern-day idiocy when it comes to how the average dimwit with a phone or camera would react in such a jaw-dropping situation.

Peele knows that we’ve seen lots of alien invasions, tense horror movies and epic Westerns – and so he takes the things you’d expect to see and flips them upside down. Ably backed by terrifying sound design (probably one of the most disturbing parts of this whole film, once you twig why), truly innovative creature special effects (from a visual point of view) and a bold, tense score from regular collaborator Michael Abels, the director both pays homage to and mocks the idea of cinematic spectacle, the phone camera age, our assumptions about extraterrestrial life, and much more.

None of this would work quite so well without the story being strong – here, Peele succeeds as well. Centring things around the double-act energy of Kaluuya’s stoic, wry straight man and Palmer’s hyperactive, give-anything-a-try livewire, a core theme of dealing with the past and moving forward emerges, as well as taking lessons from one part of your life and applying them to another.

As with Peele’s other films, the hooks that this movie hangs on are unique – linking the family to the first man captured on (primitive) filming technology, and the racial subtexts to that and their continuing work within the world of the film, is just one clever touch among potentially hundreds (overt or covert). Even ideas that don’t seem at first to be relevant, including man’s treatment of and respect for animals, are cleverly brought up and integrated into the wider plot.

It’s not just Spielberg that the film evokes though – there’s an air of Ridley Scott’s Alien in some scenes, and memorably of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in one standout visual – you get the sense that this film is messing with your mind and your ears, and creeping you out as it does so. And that plays into what I was saying about spectacle, and its main subtext – mocking our need to film, to document, and to hopefully make money from doing so (reality TV doesn’t escape its mockery, nor does gutter journalism).

The film is also memorably made tense thanks not only to Hoytema’s slowly unfurling, long shots of the valley and the sky – which bring a sense of horror into the blinding sunshine – but thanks to Nicholas Monsour’s editing, which (in allowing those long shots) lets things unfold slowly, steadily and disturbingly. The film’s opening, and a return to this seemingly unrelated sequence later, is the standout example of this: a truly grotesque, horrible experience where you can’t see exactly what’s happening (again, playing into that idea of spectacle and shock), but your mind still paints a grim picture of the hidden scene.

Additionally, once the film’s central antagonist element is revealed, Hoytema’s sun-bleached angles and Monsour’s steady takes give the passage of the mysterious adversary a really unnerving, disturbing energy and unreality that add to a growing sense of unease and discomfort. It’s technically great, this film – but without its core plot and the way Peele allows it all to unfold, that’s all it’d be.

A HUGE part of why I liked Nope so much though was Daniel Kaluuya, the English actor once again playing a flawless American and here dialling down his charisma and humour to play an almost Clint Eastwood-level O.J. A man of few words, but with a face suggesting he’s intently thinking at all times about what to do next, Kaluuya gives a laconic, near-horizontal and desert-dry witty performance that holds your gaze, and he’s the quietly calm but steely heart of the movie – this cowboy just enters his scenes of battle wearing a bright orange Scorpion King hoodie instead of a cowboy hat.

Palmer’s the almost irritating counterpart, a motormouth and outspoken extrovert to O.J.’s introvert, but the actress provides much of the humour ably, particularly in her painting Emerald as always looking for the next rule to break, the next poorly-judged comment to blurt out or the next money-making opportunity to arise. It’s that chalk-and-cheese interplay that sells the two as siblings, and later on in the film she gets to enjoy a different and varied journey to Kaluuya’s that’s satisfying to watch.

Beyond the main two actors, Steven Yeun forms an interesting third element as local businessman and former child actor Ricky Park. He sensitively plays a man changed by unimaginable trauma, but in a way that sees him treat his experience as a joke. However, it’s clear that his detached, broken persona is really masking the uncomfortable reality. While his arc isn’t as deep as the other two characters’, he’s central to some memorable elements and really ought to be known for more than just The Walking Dead.

Brandon Perea’s jittery, paranoid tech shop worker is a fun audience surrogate, joining the siblings in their plan and essaying a journey from intrusive, to overly helpful, to cocky and then terrified as the reality of what he’s got himself into becomes apparent. Finally, a Keith David cameo is always welcome (his distinctive voice doing more to paint his work-obsessed dad than anything else), and notable character actor Michael Wincott is a hoot as hilariously-named egotistical cinematographer Antlers Holst, his gravelly voice and “seen-it-all-before” demeanour a perfect addition to the troupe as everything starts getting out of hand.

Nope is absolutely worth a watch if you enjoyed Jordan Peele’s other two films, though it’s definitely very different. If you’re a fan of cinema, spectacle, and either/or westerns or sci-fi movies, you’ll get plenty of bang for your buck(s). It’s a film that seems to be about one thing, but unfurls to become something quite different by the end (and if you’ve seen the film, I am VERY SMUG about using that analogy).

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