Nope (2022)

“It was a spectacle. People are just obsessed.”

Nope isn’t a film directly about religion, but ultimately is one about faith and belief, and it begins with an Old Testament quote from the prophetic book of Nahum. “And I will cast abominable filth upon thee, and make thee vile, and will set thee as a spectacle.” With this foreboding statement and an unsettling opening sequence, writer & director Jordan Peele shows his cards and how he’s going to play them, essentially telling the audience what his story is going to be about and why it’s one worth telling. Peele’s latest film is his most ambitious to date, and while it doesn’t quite match the soaring heights of what he’s gifted us before, the end product is one worth dazzling over and chewing on. My gut tells me this one will only get better with age and over time. It’s a daring, literal, insightful commentary on our fame chasing culture.

After the mysterious and tragic passing of their father, siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em (Keke Palmer) inherit the family ranch, where horses are trained for film and TV. OJ stands for Otis Jr. and he’s able to laugh at his own name, going about business in a standoffish and matter-of-fact way. Em is short for Emerald, which comes across through how big and bright the character is played by the infectious Palmer. Nope is right to not create a sibling rivalry between the two, and instead shows how they’re stronger together, if only because it’s necessary to combat and capture whatever is lurking around in the sky, hiding in the pillowy clouds.

The Haywood siblings become obsessed with getting what they call “the Oprah shot.” To catch this UFO on camera and become rich after selling the image. Joining them is Fry’s Electronics employee and supernatural obsessed Angel (Brandon Perea), as well as Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a celebrated cinematographer fueled by the possibility of capturing one perfect shot on his hand cranked camera. And not far from the ranch is Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a grown man still seeking the attention he once found as a child actor, and whose survival amid an on-screen attack by a Chimpanzee decades ago leads him to believe that his exploits have a deeper meaning and purpose. His ego sees the UFO as a means of regaining stardom, and he’s more than willing to feed anything and everything into that false line of thinking.

More epic in scope than I expected, yet decidedly less intimate than Peele’s previous films, Nope is nonetheless captivating from the eerie start to its satisfying finish. The story balance feels a bit off kilter transitioning from the second act to the third, and the tone of it all is never entirely in sync; there are times where it’s compelling and charming in a Spielbergian fashion and then suddenly cold and distant in the Kubrickian model. Those changes can be a bit jarring when they occur, but they never take you entirely out of the picture either. For a film about how spectacle can consume us, it sure is hard to look away from.

With Nope, Peele explores science fiction and western and horror genre tropes through the lens of the now, and pulls no punches when commenting on where we might be headed as one big melting pot of attention seekers. We see how fame and fortune have become inextricably tied to the idea of spectacle no matter the scale, how we live to be seen and heard and liked again and again, and how our dopamine receptors have become hostages to how we are perceived from the outside looking in. He does all of this while playing the loud ringleader of his own big high top circus, convincing us to look at and face the ugly parts we don’t really want to acknowledge, and showing us how easily consumed we are when we look up in wonder rather than looking down and facing the harsh and immediate realities of everyday life. That he’s able to tuck all of that into a mini epic is as close to masterful as I’ve seen this year.

“I guess some animals ain’t fit to be trained.”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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