Jordan Peele’s latest is entertaining, but fails to live up to the impossible expectations
Jordan Peele’s one-two punch of Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) made him one of the most respected and promising directors of today. Likewise, his producing arm has delivered exciting projects such as BlacKkKlansman (2018), Lovecraft Country (2020), and Candyman (2021). His return to the director’s chair has, thus, generated a buzz of excitement and expectation that is frankly unfair for any filmmaker to have to endure.
Nope (2022) is the story of OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) two siblings who inherit a movie horse wrangling business. However, when they struggle to deliver on film sets, they decide to pursue their fortune in another way: trying to capture an image of a potential UFO around their farm.
Jordan Peele has been tagged as a “socially conscious horror filmmaker,” and with Nope there seems to be an attempt by him of trying to run away from that definition. Nope is a more stripped-down horror film that Peele’s previous films, not focusing so much on the issues of racism and social injustice, as much as trying to deliver atmosphere and creeps. That is not to say that the film is hollow, there is a fascinating probing into humanity’s fascination with violence and spectacle, and how we will go to unimaginable lengths simply to be entertained. This is both depicted in the film as well as demonstrated in the theater as movie-goers are both horrified and unable to look away by what’s happening on screen.
As with most great horror films, and specifically “creature-features,” Peele intelligently shows as little of the mysterious entity as possible. This allows the film to stretch its air of mystery and ambiguity, so that you’re never sure whether a glance or flicker was something supernatural, or simply a trick of the light. Peele challenges himself with the setting of Nope particularly. Horror is infinitely easier to produce when you are in an enclosed space with a feeling of entrapment. Peele sets his film in the wide expanses of the West Coast wilderness. This makes his achievement of claustrophobia and paranoia truly admirable, as you look at the vast desert and expansive sky and are made to shudder.
Peele reteams with Kaluuya after both their breakouts in Get Out. Kaluuya delivers a more dead-pan and quieter performance than we’ve previously seen from him, but it doesn’t make him any less enticing. Many viewers will miss out on the difficult feat that Kaluuya undergoes, of seeming to have one set facial expression and tone throughout the film, and yet delivering so much history and emotion at the same time. Keke Palmer, meanwhile, has the showier of the two roles, as the hyper Emerald, but she also treads a fine line of potentially falling into the trope of obnoxious comedy relief; she gratefully doesn’t, and demonstrates, once again, that her talents deserve to be exploited in more films.
Nope works as a horror film, but it will disappoint many fans who are coming from Peele’s work in Get Out and Us. There is no grand underlying message in Nope, as Peele leans more into producing the horror and entertainment elements within the film rather than some intellectual social foray into the ills of our society (not to say that there isn’t some of that). If Peele’s name were not attached to Nope, one would see the film as a rather straightforward and clearcut horror flick that is well directed, acted, and produced, and which delivers a rather intriguing time at the movies. The greatest flaw in Nope is not that it has fallen for a more mainstream tone, or that its finale feels like a predictable blockbuster, but rather that monumental expectations had been placed on it in the first place.