For all the mystery surrounding Nope—the enigmatic poster and trailer, the fan theories, etc.—the film ends up being surprisingly straightforward. That’s not to say it lacks depth, but rather than being sinister and eerie, as expected from Jordan Peele based on his first two movies, Nope has a more hearty, sci-fi adventure spirit with occasional streaks of horror akin to M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.
That said, Nope still contains some of the most unsettling imagery Peele’s ever created and has far more to say than Shyamalan (no disrespect to Signs, which is perfectly entertaining). Take the opening shot. A single shoe balances perfectly on its heel. A cut to a wide shot shows that the shoe stands in the middle of a sitcom set absent a studio audience that has undergone some kind of disaster. Lights have fallen, furniture has been ravaged, and a motionless body lies on the ground, partially obscured by a couch. A chimpanzee, covered in blood and clearly agitated, crawls into frame, apparently the aggressor in what’s just occurred.
Something about that shoe comes off as particularly disturbing: the stillness of it, the improbable balance it has attained despite the adjacent disarray, its undisturbed positioning in the center of an environment that has just undergone a horrific explosion of violence. This feeling remains in place throughout the rest of the film, even during the lighter moments. Tenuous stability only serves to accentuate chaos. As Daniel Kaluuya’s character asks later on, “Is there such a thing as a bad miracle?”
This sequence will be revealed as a flashback and connected to the main plot in a narratively incidental but thematically indispensable way. Like Us, Peele begins with an epigraph and a cold open which finds relevance later on. This epigraph comes from the Book of Nahum in the Hebrew Bible. Verse 3:6:
I will cast abominable filth on you,
make you vile
and make you a spectacle
In context, this refers to the fall of Nineveh, a corrupt Assyrian city known for cruelty and exploitation. The beginning of the film presents that filth and spectacle, contextualizing it in pieces only after it departs into the story of the Haywoods, a family of ranchers and animal handlers for Hollywood productions. After legendary horse trainer and patriarch Otis Sr. (Keith David in a wonderful but disappointingly brief cameo) is killed from random objects falling from the sky (getting biblical again), his dedicated but uncharismatic son, O.J. (Kaluuya), struggles to carry on the business. His sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), has far more of the flair needed to sell their services and shmooze the right people, but seems to have little interest in continuing on her father’s footsteps.
Their ranch abuts an Old West theme park run by Ricky (Steven Yeun), a former child actor that provides the connection to Nope’s first moments. As a child, Ricky starred on a sitcom about a boy and his chimpanzee, Gordy (Terry Notary in a motion-capture performance), that went horribly wrong when some popping balloons set off the animal actor and caused him to violently maul several of the cast members to death. As an adult, Park has compartmentalized the trauma he experienced that day and has capitalized on the notoriety in order to jumpstart his business, which uses animals in a similarly sensationalized way.
This tangent plot, somewhat disjointed in its placement but so compelling and disturbing that Peele gets away with it, represents the most extreme consequence of animal exploitation which the Haywoods’ struggle with horses briefly gestures to. In some ways it feels entirely divorced from the rest of the plot, but the thematic through-line sutures them and forms a duality later on. When the Haywoods discover a UFO-like entity that disrupts electrical activity stalking their lands and posing a potential threat to themselves and the patrons of Ricky’s theme park, they become determined to capture it on camera one way or another. Their pursuit parallels Ricky’s operation, which with a dose of cosmic justice sees its own interaction with the unidentified predator.
To revisit that scene on the commercial shoot would especially illuminate how this all fits together. Keke Palmer delivers a monologue, a spoken thesis statement of sorts that Jordan Peele even felt necessary to prominently feature in the trailer, wherein it is told that one of the earliest motion pictures, Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 series of photographs, “The Horse in Motion,” featured a black actor as the jockey. Emerald and O.J. are revealed to be the descendants of that jockey, and therefore the bearers of a legacy of Black Artists going unrecognized for their contributions to film history.
The Haywoods’ endeavor to be the first to record this creature revives this legacy, and their pure ambition and more ethical motivation of alerting the world yields them reward while those who lean into sensationalism, including the Haywoods’ helpers—a dopey surveillance technician seeking credit, Angel (Brandon Perea), and a gruff old-school cinematographer with lofty ideals, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott)—discover the capability of the thing that lurks above, a figure that takes on the appearance of a camera aperture and when fully unfurled resembles the film apparatus, both a projector and a screen. Like Hollywood, it chews you up and spits you out.
With Nope, Peele has taken his concerns to a new level. From examining racial identity and microaggressions he moved up to class and inequality more generally. Here, he expands even wider, all the way to the medium of film itself. In a business that creates spectacle through exploitation, cosmic punishment may await in the form of a rather ugly reckoning, a bursting of a bubble or a balloon, and devouring of biblical proportions. | Nic Champion