It has pretty much become a given that any film Jordan Peele makes will be an event. This would have been the case with just his Oscar-winning, seminal horror classic 'Get Out' (2017), arguably one of the most important American films of the last decade, but his position as a major filmmaker was further cemented with his startling follow-up 'Us' (2019), which caused a degree of bafflement at the time of release but has since been accepted as a significant achievement. The level of anticipation for his third feature, 'Nope', has been considerable, amongst the highest of any film this year, but if 'Us' taught us anything about Jordan Peele, it's to leave whatever expectations we have at the door. Like a great magician, his skill is in dazzling us with the unexpected, subverting what we think we want and delivering something unique, memorable and gleefully unsettling.
First, a warning: 'Nope' is a film best viewed with as little knowledge as possible. As always, I'll try and refrain from sharing spoilers in this review, but there are small specifics below that could give away non-vital plot details. Just know this - the film goddamn rules. For those that want to read on...
OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya, 'Widows') has found himself in an awful situation. With the sudden death of his father Otis (Keith David, 'Cloud Atlas'), he has to take over the running of the family ranch where they train horses as stunt performers for film and television. Though his sister Emerald (Kiki Palmer, 'Hustlers') is around to help, her interest in the ranch is waning, all the more as OJ is forced to sell horses to keep the ranch afloat. And then, one night, the power mysteriously goes out, and the horses are in a state of distress. OJ goes to look, and sees something mysterious, something unexplainable in the night sky. With the help of local Fry's Electronics store clerk Angel (Brandon Perea, Netflix's 'The OA'), they set up cameras all over the ranch to capture whatever it is on film.
But this is a Jordan Peele film, and things are far from what they seem. In my review for 'Us', I remarked that anyone going into that film expecting a facsimile of 'Get Out' was going to be disappointed, and that is the case again with 'Nope'. What is becoming clear over the course of Peele's career as a filmmaker is that he has no interest in repeating himself, and deliciously so. While we may have pinned him as a horror filmmaker from his debut film, it may be more appropriate to think of him as someone more fascinated with genre storytelling in general. That isn't to say that 'Nope' doesn't further demonstrate his astonishing skill with building tension or with horrific, disturbing imagery, but as with his previous films, those skills are put in service of a very specific form of fantastical storytelling that he both twists in on itself and then weaves in a commentary on the very people in the cinema watching it. The spectacle of his work (and there's no shortage of gorgeous, thrilling spectacle in 'Nope') is in watching the expert manner in which he manipulates and shape-shifts before our eyes, landing us in the final moments far from where we began and not at all where we expected.
At its heart, 'Nope' is a film about making sense out of chaos, and taking back autonomy amid that chaos. It takes its time laying all the groundwork for OJ's predicament. His safe place is with the horses, training them and breaking them in. You get the sense, from his downward expression to his outdated flip-phone, that people don't interest him, and he would rather live his life surrounded by only his family and the horses they care for. The death of Otis shatters that safety, forcing him to take a more public-facing role within the company, but he is constantly hobbled by his shyness and dislike for people. His world is in shambles, made worse by the growing emotional distance between him and Emerald. One is trying to disappear, while the other is frantically searching for something to give her direction in the world. What they need is something to unite them and give them the solid footing they need.
This character setup is important for what is to come, and what Peele throws at OJ and Emerald is perhaps his most audacious premise yet. What lurks in the skies above the Haywood Ranch is pure chaos, manifested in an "object" whose behaviour seems unpredictable and shockingly primal. When the penny drops and Peele reveals what is actually at the heart of 'Nope', he also reveals his most surprising trick - after two relatively contained, almost chamber piece-like horror fables, he's aiming big with 'Nope', delivering a film more akin to Spielberg than Carpenter. 'Nope' is huge, bonkers and deliriously entertaining, delivering a succession of action set-pieces artfully constructed and gleefully executed. While his screenplays since 'Get Out' may lack that film's perfect clockwork, his follow-up films have revealed just how tremendously skilled he is as a director, his command of the scope of 'Nope' integral to its narrative success. There are so many plot pieces flying in the wind here, and yet he manages to keep them tethered together with his precise visual storytelling, so that as its mysteries are revealed and it moves towards its insane climax, you feel assured that someone has their hands on the wheel who knows exactly what they're doing.
It helps that he has such a remarkable team of collaborators around him. Editor Nicholas Monsour and production designer Ruth De Jong return after their tremendous work on 'Us', the former continuing to evolve and perfect Peele's particular balance of comedy and horror rhythms to dizzying effect, and the latter imbuing the same level of playfulness in the environments. The same can be said of costume designer Alex Bovaird (TV's 'The White Lotus'), creating an idiosyncratic silhouette for every character. Michael Abels, who composed the remarkable scores for both of Peele's previous films, has a field day with this score, combining a seething sense of dread with the sweeping orchestral accents of a Spielberg adventure film at full flight. The star of Peele's creative team though is legendary cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. Through his work with Christopher Nolan, Van Hoytema has turned IMAX cinematography into an art form, and his work on 'Nope' is so lush, so gorgeous, so surprisingly colourful, with an extraordinary depth of field and use of perspective. When so many major Hollywood films fall into the trap of serviceable cinematography, seeing Van Hoytema capture Peele's giant story with this degree of precision and epic sweep is a joy to behold.
If 'Nope' is further proof of the command Peele has over his work, it also continues to demonstrate his skill with actors. Daniel Kaluuya is brilliant as always, digging deep into OJ's need to disappear while carefully charting his transition into our heroic protagonist. His understatement in the face of the insane events of the film is also deliciously funny. We've always known Keke Palmer was something special, but she is sensational in this film, revealing a delicate sense of tragedy, a glorious comic timing, a master of building suspense and an unexpected action star (there is one shot of her in the final minutes that had me literally cheering). If this doesn't make her career soar, I don't know what will. Another actor who you can't stop thinking about afterwards is Brandon Perea. Not only does the camera love him, but he has so much insatiable charisma and intelligent delivery that he crackles every moment he's on screen. There's also a predictably terrific (and wonderfully unhinged) performance from Steven Yeun ('Burning') as the entrepreneurial owner of a local Cowboy theme park, and the glorious return of 90s Hollywood staple Michael Wincott as mysterious and cantankerous cinematographer Antlers Holst, brought on by OJ and Emerald to help capture this "thing" on film once and for all.
There are moments that freeze your guts and hold you in a vice-like grip by the neck, and moments that revel in the bloodiness and grossness of it all.
Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that 'Nope' is as accomplished as it is, but when discussing Peele's films, we're often reduced to two questions: is it scary, and is it about Something? 'Nope' certainly makes an argument about how reductive both those questions are, and how actively Peele is trying to move away from making them necessary, but the short answer for both is absolutely. Peele's use of horror evolves depending on what story he has to tell, whether it was nightmarish tension in 'Get Out' or slasher violence and body horror in 'Us'. To describe the mode of horror he's working with here would be to give too much away, but suffice to say that, where his previous films were vicious, this film has more of a wicked nastiness to it. There are moments that freeze your guts and hold you in a vice-like grip by the neck, and moments that revel in the bloodiness and grossness of it all. And as always, he employs his skill with comedy like a weapon, knowing exactly when to use it to break or defuse the tension, or to trick you into a false sense of security.
When it comes to whether the film is about Something, this one is a little harder to pin down. The further he moves away from 'Get Out' (a film that wears its intention very much on its sleeve), the more he wants to leave it open for us. Peele makes puzzles, and on first viewing there are a number of pieces of 'Nope' that seem incongruous to one another. On rewatch this may prove to be a flaw of the film, but his choices all seem very deliberate, making me suspect this will be unlikely. He's also a filmmaker who revels in the incongruous and the mysterious, meaning that some aspects of the film may never make sense, and it's down to your personal preference over just how much patience you have with such things. I've always revelled in the unexplained with such films, asking only that each choice is done with intention, even if I don't know what that is, and there's no doubt Peele is clear in all his choices. This means though that, even more so than 'Us', the meaning is what we make of it. I could certainly see a social commentary running through it - a comment on how right-wing fundamentalism has the unnerving ability to provide direction for the directionless before decimating them - but that may just be my own interpretation. It's also possible that Peele just wanted to make an entertaining, thrilling sci-fi horror extravaganza, and if that's all it is in the end, then it achieves this in spades. It's foolish for us to expect an artist to give us the same film over and over again, and even more so to expect a filmmaker of colour to deliver a piece of biting social commentary with every work they make. If Peele is delivering a puzzle box to us, then that isn't a sign of him trying to outsmart us or show how clever he is. He's inviting us into the story he's telling, and the extra work we need to do is allowing us to be part of the game he's constructed for us.
'Nope' is exactly the kind of experience you long for in a film. It begins by tempting you in with a mysterious setup and loveable characters, then wrapping its wicked arms around you to send unexpected shivers up your spine. Then it delivers its surprises, makes you jump and gasp and lean forward, before capping it all off with a finale that is absolutely not at all what you expected but leaves you gasping with delight at the audacity of it. Even if I didn't care about spoiling the ending for you, I'm not sure how I could even describe it. It's been a long time since a filmmaker went this hard and this crazy in a blockbuster, knowing the audience will have their back. It just proves how powerful Jordan Peele has become that a major Hollywood studio gave him full permission to do whatever the hell he wanted. 'Nope' is a remarkable achievement, an extraordinary piece of genre filmmaking that subverts almost every expectation. It cements Jordan Peele as one of the most exciting cinematic voices we have. Most of all though, it's just so much goddamn fun. I'm already counting down the days until I can see it again and again and again.