Nope (2022), Jordan Peele [3.5/5]
Updated: Sep 19, 2022
There is a gallery of moments in the history of horror that have seared themselves into the public dread like the folklore of yore. The head-spinning bile of the demented in The Exorcist, the insectoid paddies of human flesh in The Thing, the satanic fornication of Rosemary's Baby. I have a feeling Peele's film Nope will imprint some new entries into this pantheon.
A cloud of blood rains on a dark ranch house, the inhabitants creaking cautiously along floorboards inside. The screaming of people sucked through the internal tubing of an alien, the claustrophobia of spelunking brought to a bone-crushing terror. The dead-eyed violence of a murderous chimp finding you in your hiding spot.
Recently, however, I have noticed a worrying trend in film criticism discourse; people online have an inability to characterize or review Jordan Peele with any sense of objectivity or nuance. Namely there are two camps: those who claim Jordan Peele to be the greatest, most brilliant filmmaker in history and those who resent the political implications of his powerful debut Get Out (2017) for its commentary on policing, liberal hypocrisy, and race in America.
Among the former, Peele himself has humorously responded to a tweet from an obsequious reviewer. "At what point do we declare Jordan Peele the best horror director of all time? Can you think of another horror director that had 3 great films, let alone 3 in a row? I can't," wrote a cultural commentator with almost 1 million followers. Peele replied, "Sir, please put the phone down I beg you."
Among the latter, a prominent YouTube film reviewer with 1.35 million subscribers wrote about Peele's Us (2019), saying, "So it seems like Us was hailed as one of the horror masterpieces of our time, but is it really? Or is it just an overrated piece of trash that relies on 2019 social commentary to win critical praise?"
While many in the sycophantic camp try to paint him as the esoteric philosophical filmmaker of our time (a modern Tarkovsky), Peele has always struck me as a talented popcorn movie auteur — like his predecessor in the horror genre John Carpenter or Michael Mann for the crime thriller genre — someone who makes widely accessible, well-crafted genre movies with a clever twist and an interesting social commentary.
A couple weeks ago, this discourse was on my mind when I saw Nope (2022) in theaters. The story centers on a family of black Hollywood horse trainers as mysterious, seemingly extraterrestrial events start to disrupt their ranch. Peele and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Ad Astra, Dunkirk) shot the "night" scenes in the bright of day, using 65mm digital infrared combined with Panavision film to mimic the bluish dark of an evening California gulch.
Peele and Hoytema juxtapose these low-light wide shots with shallow focus close-ups of static objects (horse statues, inflatable air dancers, etc.) to lend the film an eerie, paranoid sensibility, as if the viewer is being watched by something just outside of their gaze. Peele is at his highest competence as a technical filmmaker; he's an auteur with an immediately recognizable aesthetic in an age when market analytics, streaming giants, and franchises often dissuade risky, individual directorial styles.
In an early scene, protagonist OJ Haywood, played by the typically laconic Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther, Sicario, Queen & Slim), searches his barn after sensing an intruder. Inside we see a stout, bulbous headed alien with giant black eyes, but Peele is clever to only show the alien on the edge of the frame, always obstructed and just out of view. Its reveal is reminiscent of Signs (2002) where M. Night Shyamalan unveils the green alien on a shaky cam tape where it stretches out momentarily in an alleyway as witnesses scream before it darts back out of view. We soon learn that this is no alien at all, just prankster kids in cheap costumes, but Peele extracts a nicely horrific jump-scare out of the incident.
My only technical complaint is that Peele often held his suspenseful long takes too long, undermining the immediacy of the tension. I noticed this particularly in the scene where OJ hides in his truck while the alien stalks above and I found myself intuitively anticipating a cut that didn't arrive until several moments later.
When Peele finally reveals the true alien (or a kind of cryptid, an undiscovered species endemic to earth), the design of the creature is a reimagining of the flying saucer prototype into an organic soaring starfish shaped like a Stetson hat which feeds on earth's inhabitants through the aperture underneath it. Once the creature expands into its flowing final form in the story's climax, its design reminded me of the aliens in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016) with its ribbony, stingray build.
As seen in all three of Jordan Peele's features, the drama works on multiple levels. His story of an alien visitation is often a vehicle to criticize profit-driven sensationalist media systems. This is the purpose of the TMZ reporter motorcyclist chasing the alien story to his death or the highly disturbing Gordy's Home side plot where a child sitcom actor watches his show's chimpanzee maul his cast peers to death before being forced to laugh at the event when it was virally mocked and circulated by Saturday Night Live. In this opportunistic for-profit system, any traumatic or life-threatening event is treated as an opportunity to farm clicks and headlines.
Unfortunately, Kaluuya's OJ was so reserved with his one-liners that I struggled to emotionally connect with his dilemma while Keke Palmer and Brandon Perea's dynamic was full of fun quips and banter but not grounded enough to carry the emotional load of a family drama. Peele also killed off the father character Otis Haywood Sr. in the opening scene; he could have used Hollywood legend Keith David's (The Thing, Requiem for a Dream, Platoon) compelling presence to connect audiences with the family's struggle instead of relying on the occasional flashback to hint at some nostalgic past.
In sum, the editing choices and lack of dramatic characters kept me from giving it four stars, but the stunning cinematography and gripping horror elements warranted a strong 3.5 stars; a fun and worthwhile summer horror flick, an improvement on his last feature Us.