Film Review: “Nope” – Behold, the Great American Spectacle
By Nicole Veneto
Nope, Jordan Peele’s highly anticipated third feature, is an awe-inspiring marvel about our own unrelenting obsession with spectacle.
Nope directed by Jordan Peele. Screening at Somerville Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, and movie houses throughout New England.
On a cold March day a month after Trump’s inauguration, I saw Get Out at Coolidge Corner Theater and it ended up being one of the most cathartic filmgoing experiences of my life. In the final scene, Chris (Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya in his first nominated role) is trying to get away from the secluded estate of his duplicitous white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams), who has taken him to meet her not-so-nice white family so her father could surgically transplant an elderly blind man’s brain into Chris’s body. As the two tussle in the road, Chris wraps his hands around Rose’s neck but can’t bring himself to strangle her despite the smug, evil grin on her face. A police car pulls into the road flashing its sirens. Confident her whiteness will protect her, Rose plays up being an innocent white woman and cries for the cops to save her. Chris puts his hands in the air with a look of total exhaustion in his eyes. Everyone around me held their breath — we all know how this scenario unfolds: Emmett Till, the Central Park Five, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, etc., etc.
The car door opens. Out steps Rod (Lil Rel Howery), Chris’s best friend, arriving in his TSA-issued emergency vehicle to rescue Chris just in the nick of time. The two drive off together — “I told you to get the fuck out that house, man!” — as Rose, like a roadkill deer, bleeds out in the street from a gunshot wound. As soon as the credits rolled, the entire audience burst into applause, equal parts relieved by Chris’s survival and completely gobsmacked by the movie itself. A certified horror classic right out of the gate, Get Out went on to make cinematic history in a way nobody anticipated, grossing over $255.4 million against a $4.5 million budget and earning comedian-turned-director Jordan Peele the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay as well as a Best Picture nomination for his feature debut. Peele followed Get Out with 2019’s doppelgänger horror Us, another politically trenchant social thriller satirizing American class stratification headed by a stunning (but snubbed) dual performance by Lupita Nyong’o. Though critically and financially successful enough to solidify Peele as a new master of horror à la Hitchcock, Carpenter, and Craven, Us didn’t quite generate the same universal praise as Get Out. Nevertheless, it proved Peele was more than a one trick pony lucky enough to capture something truly spectacular on film.
The history of cinema and moving pictures is also the history of the great American spectacle, of being able to see the extraordinary, the fantastical, the perverse, and the profoundly affecting with our own two eyes. Of course, our obsession with spectacle is as much about being distracted from cold, harsh reality as it is about mass entertainment. Unfortunately cinematic spectacle just isn’t what it used to be, at least not in the Kubrickian or classically Spielbergian sense. Blockbusters are currently beholden to nostalgia-ridden IP franchises, funding from the Pentagon and/or the Department of Defense, and teams of underpaid and overworked VFX artists churning out overly artificial CG effects that make your eyes slide to the back of your skull. Nope, Peele’s highly anticipated third feature, is an awe-inspiring marvel about our own unrelenting obsession with spectacle. Much like Get Out, Nope arrives at a moment when big-screen spectacle pales in comparison to the real-life horrors accumulating on our social media feeds every day. Peele’s latest provides a revelatory comment on this imbalance: the film reflects on how spectacles are made out of things we can neither control or truly understand: tragedies, trauma, wild animals, and extraterrestrial forces alike.
Six months after the sudden death of patriarch Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David, The Thing) from shrapnel falling from the sky, his son Otis Jr., aka OJ (Kaluuya, the De Niro to Peele’s Scorsese), has taken over the family business, Haywood Hollywood Horses, with his side-hustling little sister Emerald (an infectiously charismatic Keke Palmer). The Haywoods claim to be descendants of the uncredited black jockey featured in Eadweard Muybrdige’s 1878 chronophotography series The Horse in Motion: “Since the moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game!” Pedigree hardly matters though — in an increasingly CG-reliant industry, live animals just aren’t used much anymore. To keep the business afloat, OJ sells horses to the Jupiter’s Claim fairground owned by former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen, Minari), whose claim to fame as a cutesy kid actor includes surviving a vicious chimpanzee attack on the set of the doomed 90’s sitcom Gordy’s Home. (I’ll refrain from saying anything further about this thematically crucial subplot, but Jupe’s flashback to the incident might be the most frightening thing Peele’s put to screen yet. I actually broke a nail gripping the arm rests so tightly.)
Haunted by the inexplicable circumstances of Otis Sr.’s death, the Haywood siblings start noticing odd happenings around their Agua Dulce ranch: random blackouts, downed security cameras, fluctuating electricity, and horses either wandering off or vanishing without a trace. When OJ catches sight of a large disc-shaped hovercraft abducting one of the horses, Em suggests they take advantage of the “bad miracle” befalling the ranch for fame and fortune. They’re out to get “the money shot” (or “the Oprah shot,” as Em calls it), clear and undeniable proof of extraterrestrial activity the likes of which have never been seen before. Since the UFO disrupts electrical currents, the two install battery-operated surveillance cameras around the property with the help of paranormal-minded tech guy Angel Torres (The OA’s Brandon Perea), who’s first to notice the most unsettling sign of them all: a single stationary cloud that’s remained in the exact same spot for the last six months. But the Haywoods aren’t the only ones trying to wrangle in the ominous spectacle. Turns out Jupe’s been using the horses OJ sold to him as bait for a new live show, the consequences of which attract the attention of famed cinematographer Antlers Holst (the gruff-voiced Michael Wincott in a performance recalling Robert Shaw in Jaws) to the Haywood ranch to capture their bad miracle on film.
As with Get Out and Us, Nope’s brilliance lies with Peele’s talent for reconstituting familiar horror tropes and genre trappings toward a larger meta-critique about Black experience throughout American history. Here, Peele explores the exploitative relationship between Black people and the great American spectacle — how white society has made consumable entertainment out of Black pain, Black bodies, and Black stories while actively barring Blacks from having any authorial say over the narratives they’re the subjects of. In keeping with this mission, Nope sees Peele firing on all cylinders as a writer and director to realize his ambitious creative vision. Peele’s signature combination of wit, humor, and salient social commentary are perfectly serviced by his two leads: Palmer’s firecracker personality fills every inch of the screen, and Kaluuya’s ability to communicate OJ’s thoughts and feelings with a silent look alone is nothing short of a master class.
Shot on 65 mm IMAX film by the great Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Her, Dunkirk), Nope is a visual marvel on par with Spielberg’s best work, harkening back to the glory days of blockbuster filmmaking with its massive set pieces and thrilling camera work. The conveniences of green screen backdrops and post-production VFX are kicked to the curb. Peele references plenty of other films in his movies — directly and indirectly — but he isn’t a solely referential director. His creative vision doesn’t consist of diluted genre pastiche, pop culture Easter eggs, or studio-mandated sequel setups (I’m looking at you Joe and Anthony Russo). The film contains reverential homages to Jaws, First Encounters of the Third Kind, Clint Eastwood and John Ford westerns, Akira, and even Neon Genesis Evangelion. You can easily trace Peele’s inspirations back to their sources, but Nope is a beast of this artist’s own diabolically ingenious making.
It’s tempting to call Jordan Peele the new Hitchcock or Spielberg, but to do so would belittle what makes him so distinctive in the current movemaking landscape. Nope makes Peele three for three as a horror director — he is on a critically and commercially successful hot streak. Given how oversaturated our cinema is with sequels, reboots, multiverses, and remakes, it’s nothing short of a miracle that Nope exists the way Peele conceived it.
But what do you call a bad miracle? “Is there a word for that?” OJ asks Em after telling her about his first encounter with the UFO.
Indeed, there is — a spectacle.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi as well as on Substack.