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Say yes to ‘Nope’

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Genre movies have long been used as delivery mechanisms for larger, deeper ideas. Sure, there are plenty that are essentially entertainment for the sake of entertainment, but for many filmmakers, the trappings of genre – sci-fi, horror, noir, Western, you name it – have provided an outlet to express insights regarding the world in which we live.

One could argue that no contemporary filmmaker has embraced that ethos as fully as Jordan Peele. His latest film is “Nope,” a sci-fi/horror/comedy mashup that has a lot to say about the evolution of our relationship to the entertainment we consume (and that, one could argue, consumes us in return). It’s a clever and weird throwback of a film, one clearly enamored with the sci-fi and monster movies of the mid-20th century even as it offers thoughts on entertainment writ large, both in the present day and in its embryonic beginnings.

Of course, while big themes and big ideas are great and all, they don’t really matter if the delivery system isn’t up to par. What Peele has done with “Nope,” just as he did with his previous two efforts “Get Out” and “Us,” is package his insights in a well-made and entertaining movie. And while this newest film is perhaps a bit shaggier and more challenging to parse, there’s no denying that he is an exceptional craftsman as both a writer and a director. That craft is on full display here.

(Note: This is a difficult film to synopsize without spoilers. I will do my best, but apologies in advance if I misstep.)

Otis Haywood Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) – or O.J. – is a horse trainer, working with his father Otis Sr. (Keith David) at the family business. Haywood’s Hollywood Horses is a ranch dedicated to providing horses for film and TV productions; the Haywoods are ostensibly the descendants of the jockey pictured in “The Horse in Motion,” considered to be one of the very first motion pictures.

After a bizarre and inexplicable incident leads to Senior’s death, O.J. tries to carry on with the help of his ambitious and energetic younger sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), but times are tough, with many productions opting for CGI options rather than actual trained animals. These tough times lead to O.J. dealing with Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), the owner of the small nearby theme park Jupiter’s Claim, occasionally selling horses for Jupe to use as part of his stage shows.

(Jupe’s claim to fame is that, as a child actor, he was part of the legendary ‘90s sitcom “Gordy’s Home,” a popular show that was abruptly cancelled when the chimp playing the titular role snapped and brutally attacked several performers and crew members.)

But when O.J. sees something in the sky – something he can’t explain – his sister sees something else: opportunity. She sets out to get photographic evidence of this unidentified aerial phenomenon, enlisting the help of Angel (Brandon Perea), who works at the local electronics store. Angel comes and sets up a series of cameras at the ranch, becoming invested in the mysterious goings-on as he does so. Despite their best efforts, they can’t get what they need, leading them to reach out to legendary cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), the seems to be the only one who can get the shot.

And yet, as weird as they believe it all to be, it turns out to be even stranger than that.

That’s all I’m giving you, folks. There’s a lot more that happens – like, a LOT more – but it’s far better for you to go in as clean as you can. The less you know, the better. Peele’s got a knack for minimizing leaks from his projects. Suffice it to say, he has his reasons and they’re good ones.

“Nope” is a B-movie wrapped in blockbuster trappings. It plays a lot like one of the alien invasion thrillers or radioactive monster flicks of the ‘50s, but with those underlying sensibilities elevated. That’s no surprise – Peele’s affection for genre work is well-documented – but as in his other projects, this film uses its inspiration as a foundation on which to build a thoughtful discourse, in this case about the consumptive nature of mass entertainment and the ways in which that two-way street can prove a dangerous one to travel.

In this, his third feature film, we get to see Peele’s growth as a filmmaker. While he’s always been a gifted writer, one with a gift for wrapping heavy concepts in accessible adornments, this script doesn’t quite reach the level of his previous work. That’s not a slight – it’s still a hell of a script, just not necessarily a masterpiece. Directorially, however, this might be his most impressive accomplishment to date; he utilizes an exponentially bigger budget adroitly while still maintaining the dynamic aesthetic and performative connectivity that made his previous outings so successful. He’s still evolving as a cinematic storyteller, which is extremely exciting considering the high level at which he started.

It's also an incredibly arresting film visually. The sheer scope of the aesthetics is mesmerizing, with massive shots that lead to you searching the screen – you’re drawn to the details, with your eyes constantly moving. Throw in a score that tends toward the John Williams-esque and you’re left with that sense of spectacle, even as you’re also captured by the film’s many moments of intimacy. Even when what is happening is rendered mysteriously, we’re given the opportunity to watch how the characters react to that which we cannot see.

Now, there’s a chance you’ll have some moments of confusion or uncertainty watching “Nope” – there’s a ton happening and things do get a little shaggy from time to time. That’s by design, with Peele being the sort of filmmaker who trusts his audience’s capabilities and has little interest in handholding. He thinks you’re smart and treats you accordingly, leading to a film that gets better and better as you consider it. And you WILL consider it – this is a movie that lingers.

Another indicator of Peel’s significant gifts behind the camera is the quality of performance he unerringly pulls from his actors. The main players in “Nope” are no exception. Daniel Kaluuya is one of the most gifted young actors of his generation (a fact that Peele recognizes, having referred to the actor as “my De Niro,” which tells you everything you need to know), and he’s doing strong, albeit subdued work here. The taciturnity with which Kaluuya informs O.J. is a paradoxically bold choice; his stolid quietude works wonderfully set against the extremity of the circumstances. Meanwhile, Keke Palmer is absolutely on fire as the ambitious Em, lighting up the screen with an energy that is simultaneously broad and focused; she goes hard in every frame of this film, serving as the catalyst that helps release the stored kinetic impact of the proceedings. And the two of them together are magical, embodying all the affection and antagonism of close sibling relationships beautifully.

They’re far from the only strong performers, however. Yeun is fantastic as the child star-turned-theme park entrepreneur/hustler, a man willing to take any advantage and do whatever it takes to put on a show (and make a buck while doing so). Perea is great as techie and true believer Angel, evoking the spirit of the credulity that can come with a life lived online. Wincott is a growling, grumbling delight as the master craftsman and entertainment lifer striking the “one for them/one for me” balance. Honestly, there’s not a bad turn here – typical of Peele projects.

“Nope” is a lot of things, many of them contradictory on their surface. It’s a spiritual throwback while also being very much of the moment. It is an original story in a world of IP franchises. It is an extremely entertaining film that also examines the intense and often unhealthy relationship we have with entertainment. It is creepy and charming, fearful and funny – a mélange of vibes that probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. Another excellent production from the mind of a generational talent.

Say yes to “Nope.”

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 25 July 2022 10:21

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