A paean to visual filmmaking, Jordan Peele’s “Nope” springboards off the first recorded moving picture in 1878, entitled “The Horse in Motion,” which captures the stationary shot of a man riding a galloping equine. The name of the videographer and even the horse are known, but the identity of the rider, a black man who is technically the first film actor and stunt man, is lost to history.
In “Nope,” the fictitious great-great-great grandchildren of that rider are OJ and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, respectively), who reside on a horse ranch amid a sprawling California gulch outside of Los Angeles. After the bizarre death of their father (Keith David), the Haywood siblings assume ownership of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, which provide trained horses for movie productions. The taciturn OJ is bound to the ranch, even if his heart is not in the business. The vivacious Em, meanwhile, is bound to her brother but harbors bigger showbiz dreams for herself.
When stationary cloud hovers in the same spot over the valley for six weeks, the Haywoods surmise the unidentified aerial phenomena could be extraterrestrial, and that capturing and then selling a visual recording of the object could be their meal ticket off the ranch.
The contrast between OJ and Em is one of the film’s sustaining features. Palmer is terrific in a meaty role that spans the acting spectrum, as Em transforms brash comic to scream queen to Western warrior. Kaluuya, meanwhile, recognizes the comedic value of a more subdued demeanor, whether it is his steely stares in the face of Em’s hysterics or periodically (and aptly) intoning the film’s title.
The genre-blending “Nope” incorporates elements of horror pictures, alien flicks, dark comedy, and Westerns; indeed, when our protagonists joust with the bad guy during the final showdown—one on horseback, the other on motorcycle — it is set to a rousing overture that would sound at home during the likes of “Ride the High Country” and “How the West Was Won.” Moreover, Peele’s predilection with the evolution of video recording litters “Nope,” starting with the sort of hand-cranked camera used to record “Horse in Motion” that reappears in the film’s final act.
In between, we witness the use of digital movie equipment, IMAX technology, personal surveillance cameras, and even camera phones. A local tech head named Angel (Brandon Perea) helps install an internet-based recording system for the Haywoods, and even an anonymous TMZ photog shows up during the denouement. The Haywoods seek the services of a grizzled Hollywood cinematographer (Michael Wincott), whose gravely rendition of “Purple People Eater” essentially removes the cloud of mystery surrounding the strange visitor.
It all feels like both Peele’s salute to filmmaking and his take on society’s voyeuristic nature. While sex equals death in the traditional horror film, in “Nope” bad things after actual eye contact.
The most disquieting part of “Nope” is not even the primary alien plot. Instead, they are flashbacks (including the film’s cold open) to a fictional 1990s television sitcom called “Gordy’s Home,” which ended in gory and ignominious fashion when the titular chimpanzee suddenly went berserk on set and maimed or killed the cast. Peele shows glimpses of the bloody aftermath through the eyes of the show’s surviving child star, Jupe, who now (played by Steven Yeun) operates an Old West theme town adjacent to the Haywood ranch. Jupe also hosts a backroom, macabre shrine to “Gordy’s Room” on the side that attracts underground fanatics looking for perverse proof of the show since the TV networks have scrubbed its existence from YouTube. So, when the mysterious cloud appears overhead, Jupe quickly pivots to also turn it into a money-making attraction for his patrons.
If there is a through line connecting “Nope’s” disparate narrative threads, it is the notion that for all our money and technological marvels, nature does not always acquiesce to our desire to tame reality to our commercial will, whether it is a sitcom monkey, stunt horses, or even a ravenous eye on the sky. In truth, however, this is not the principal takeaway from “Nope.” While we still keep waiting for Peele to replicate the searing social commentary of his film debut, “Get Out,” he instead produces a triumph of cinematic atmospherics.
Despite a murky and unwieldy plotline, “Nope” is a sensory sensation that succeeds as movies should: by assessing the fears and emotions of its audience through a combination of visual and audio sublimity, furthered in large part by “Dunkirk” and “Interstellar” cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and Peele’s obvious riffing on Spielberg and Hitchcock. Narratively, it sometimes feels like an overlong episode of a middling “Twilight Zone” episode. It is also what going to the movie theater should feel like.