Review by Timothy Lawrence
The hero of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s tense, tightly wound debut film, is a photographer. His camera – his “eye” – becomes the primary means by which he does battle with evil. Its flash frees hypnosis victims from brainwashing, restoring them to themselves, and so the symbolism comes neatly into focus. The camera renders invisible evil visible, robbing it of its power. One might take this to be the driving thesis of Peele’s films: the director intends to do battle with various evils by turning his camera against them. To see them is to defeat them… right?
The hint is in the title: Nope.
Peele’s latest film, his third, turns his first on its head. In Get Out, the camera was a healer, a liberator; in Nope, the camera becomes a consumer, a devourer. In hindsight, maybe the premise that seeing would save the world seems a little naïve, a little simplistic. To see evil is not necessarily to turn away from it. Quite the opposite: if we contemplate it too deeply and too long, we might not be able to tear our eyes away.
The film opens with the kind of tragic spectacle an audience cannot look away from. On the set of the fictitious sitcom Gordy’s Home, child actor Ricky “Jupe” Park (played as an adult by Steven Yeun, so chilling in Burning) cowers under a table while the star of the show, a trained chimpanzee called Gordy, goes off script and runs amok, beating his castmates to bloody pulps. All the while, a flashing sign keeps directing the petrified live studio audience with one word: “APPLAUSE.” This preamble ends in ominous fashion as Gordy looks straight into the camera, making eye contact with the viewer – and so, from the outset, Peele frames the act of seeing as something unnervingly double-sided. The things we look at with such queasy fascination may be able to look back at us. As the film goes on, the relationship between viewer and spectacle proves to be one of mutual devouring. The images we consume can consume us.
When we meet the grown-up Jupe later in the film, he has indeed been consumed by Gordy, though not in the way one might expect. Jupe – short for “Jupiter,” king of the Roman gods, a nickname that clues us into a certain penchant for hubristic showmanship – seems either unable or unwilling to put “The Gordy’s Home Incident” behind him. He is still capitalizing on people’s obsession with the most traumatic day of his life, and thus is doomed to relive and recreate the same spectacular tragedy until “the Viewers” finally devour him.
While Jupe and Gordy are the keys to the film’s thematic puzzle, its plot really revolves around O.J. and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer), whose family-owned ranch, Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, is just a stretch of desert away from Jupe’s cowboy theme park, Jupiter’s Claim. Despite their claims to fame – Jupe was a child star and the Haywoods purport to be descended from the black jockey in the very first motion picture, Eadweard Muybridge’s “The Horse in Motion” – both families are living on the periphery of Hollywood, struggling to break back into an industry that has chewed them up and spit them out.
O.J., whose name seems selected specifically to evoke its own real-life media circus, is steady and responsible but taciturn to a fault. He is up and working before the sun rises, but public speaking paralyzes him. Emerald, named for the color of money, is vivacious but flighty: she can connect with an audience, but is always tardy, forever ducking responsibility. We gather that the siblings have inherited these contrasting but complementary traits from their father, Otis, Sr. (They Live’s Keith David, no stranger to the sci-fi/horror/satire genre), who was a horse trainer, a showman, and a businessman all rolled into one, and whose enigmatic death haunts them as the Gordy’s Home tragedy haunts Jupe. Though they might bristle to admit it, O.J. and Emerald need each other. Their respective strengths and weaknesses balance each other out, and Kaluuya and Palmer sketch a credibly fraught yet strong bond at the film’s core, grounding Nope in emotional reality even as its plot turns toward the otherworldly.
While the film’s cryptic teaser trailers have tossed out a number of red herrings and shrouded its premise in mystery, Nope does not really have much to offer in the way of shocking revelations. In fact, the central “twist,” if you can even call it that, has a kind of dreadful simplicity to it: there is an alien monster in the sky and it wants to eat us. The more rewarding surprises come in the gradual unveiling of the sort of movie Nope is and the ideas it has on its mind. Though he only has three movies to his name so far, Peele has already carved out a reputation for himself as a writer and director of brainy, thrilling, original entertainments that are decidedly unique even as they wear their influences on their sleeves – the sort of filmmaker trendy blog posts will hail as the next Hitchcock, the next Spielberg, the next Shyamalan, or the next Christopher Nolan.
Peele, a huge movie nerd, probably delights in such comparisons, and even coyly invites them: his second film, Us, is a beach-set horror movie in which one lead character wears a T-shirt blazoned with the Jaws poster. And yet it is Nope, which sees Peele pivoting deftly from small-scale horror thrillers to a large-scale (but still horror-ish) blockbuster, that turns out to be the more thoroughly loving homage to Jaws, the original summer blockbuster. It is an upside-down Jaws, with the monster in the sky above instead of the sea below, and a ragtag crew trying to shoot it not with a gun but with a camera.
Getting the monster on camera is more difficult than it sounds, though, and Nope, like Jaws, derives much of its power from negative space. What we cannot see turns out to be scarier than what we can see; as Spielberg got us anxiously searching the waves for any sign of the unseen shark, so Peele gets us searching the clouds. As Joshua Gibbs puts it in his review of Jaws, “The scariest movies never do their own scaring. The scariest movies enlist the audience to scare themselves.” A lesser film would show the alien early, but Peele revels in the patient buildup, and that confidence extends to Nope’s story structure, its treatment of theme and character. While Get Out was perhaps a bit too tidy, a bit too concerned with explanations, Peele has grown increasingly comfortable leaving room for the viewer to fill in the blanks, making use of odd, provocative ellipses instead of spelling everything out. Nope is put together in a way that feels impressively purposeful and precise, but does not overdetermine its meaning; it is somewhere between a poem and a puzzle, full of little rhymes that point to a larger design.
According to Gibbs, “What makes [Jaws] so uniquely satisfying is the way Spielberg balances power. In schlockier films, the monster is shot through with manifestly supernatural power and thus doesn’t so much pose a threat as have some mopping up to do. There can be no tension in a story unless two opposing sides both stand a chance at getting what they want.” Early in Nope, the alien terrifies because it is unknown, but it is not necessarily unknowable. It is an irrational animal, not a malicious superhuman intelligence, and so we do not believe O.J., the experienced, sober-minded animal wrangler, to be hopelessly outmatched. “Every animal’s got rules,” he says, and rules can be worked with. As in Jaws, the heroes may be imperfect, but they are canny and competent and just might be able to pull it off. Moreover, as far as big summer movies go, both films have relatively mundane stakes. Nope’s central crew is a mix of amateurs and veterans, none of whom really have any pretensions of saving the world; they just want to get the monster on camera for different personal reasons. O.J. hopes to keep the family farm afloat, Emerald wants fame and fortune, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) is simply curious.
Anything that draws from Jaws is bound to bring along a little Moby-Dick, too, even by accident. In Jaws, the Captain Ahab analogue is Robert Shaw’s Quint, the grizzled old shark hunter; in Nope, it is Michael Wincott’s Antlers Holst, the grizzled old cinematographer enlisted by the Haywoods because of his vaunted ability to capture “the impossible” on film. In keeping with the tropes, Antlers (who postures like a predator, though his name marks him as prey from the start) is undone by his obsession with getting the perfect shot. As Ahab was sucked down into the sea in a whirlpool, Antlers is sucked up into the sky in a whirlwind.
Through Moby-Dick, we can trace Nope’s genealogy back to the Book of Job, which concludes with God appearing to Job in a whirlwind. An opening quotation from Nahum 3:6 also works to set the film in an Old Testament context, as does the veiled meaning of its title. “What’s a bad miracle?” O.J. asks Emerald after the first alien sighting. “They got a word for that?” “Nope,” she replies. The title Nope, then, refers obliquely to a bad miracle – such as the appearance of a visitor from the heavens whose final form looks quite a bit like a biblically accurate angel, metaphorically “full of eyes.” Jupe dubs the alien species “The Viewers,” recalling the angelic “watchers” in Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams.
The association of the devouring alien with “The Viewers” brings us back to Nope’s commentary on media culture and different ways of seeing. During the climax, O.J.’s attempt to wrangle the alien is disrupted by a TMZ reporter wearing a chrome motorcycle helmet, which turns his head into a mirror. The mirror helmet empties the nameless TMZ man of identity; he is a watcher with no face of his own. He is what he sees and nothing more, a pure reflection of parasitic paparazzi, and so he is devoured by the alien’s camera-shaped mouth, which doubles as its eye. Seeing and consuming are finally conflated: to see is to consume, and to consume is to be consumed.
Through the Haywood family, however, Nope reframes the act of seeing as something with the potential to heal. O.J., like the animals he works with, does not like to be seen. When he tries to address the crew on the set of a commercial, he is barely able to make eye contact. He is paralyzed by the way they are all staring at him. Emerald, in contrast, yearns to be seen. Everything she does screams, “Look at me!” Antlers is quick to perceive this: as he tells it, she is chasing the “dream” of making it to the top of the mountain, where “all eyes” will be on her.
Emerald’s craving to be seen by an audience stems from her feeling that her own father did not see her. When she was a child, Otis, Sr. promised to let her train a horse named Jean Jacket, but then Haywood Hollywood Horses landed a big contract and he went back on his word. Emerald’s chief complaint in telling the story is that, as she watched Jean Jacket’s training from an upstairs window, her father did not even look up at her. What we contemplate is what we prioritize. For Otis, Sr., money supersedes family: he does not look at his daughter, but is killed when a coin enters his eye.
Emerald is tempted to repeat Otis, Sr.’s sins, but O.J. breaks the pattern. Emerald sees the alien as a way to amass fame and fortune, but O.J. ultimately names it Jean Jacket, which is his way of telling his sister, “This is for you.”
O.J. began the film avoiding eye contact with a crowd and ends the film defiantly looking Jean Jacket in the eye to draw it away from Emerald. More importantly, he bids his sister farewell with the fingers-to-eyes gesture that means, “I see you.” She returns the gesture, and this reciprocal seeing heals the Haywood family. Emerald, who began the film distancing herself from her family, ends the film identifying herself with it, shouting, “Nobody f---s with Haywood!” Priorities have been realigned; family supersedes money; Emerald ends the film staring at O.J., not at the photograph of Jean Jacket, the meal ticket she worked so hard to get.
The film opens with the morally compromised cowboy Otis, Sr. falling off his horse and ends with the righteous cowboy O.J. astride his horse. I am not sure how literally we are meant to take this image, though, given the ambiguous conclusion of O.J.’s encounter with Jean Jacket. He is shrouded in a cloud and framed beneath a sign that reads “Out Yonder,” as if he is a ghost who has passed on and Emerald is seeing him through a veil – a new kind of vision that frees the Haywood family from slavery to mammon, from the vicious cycle of consumer and consumed.
- Release DateJuly 22, 2022