It’s been quite fascinating to track the career of Jordan Peele as of late. What’s been most intriguing is how he has entered the mainstream lexicon as a recognizable filmmaker that general audiences can identify. It’s a harder task than one may assume, as even the most accomplished of directors may have dedicated internet followings but are hardly noticeable to the everyman. Yet, Peele has certainly been able to establish himself as a pure and unique voice, particularly when it comes to the horror genre. It’s a testament to his ability as a storyteller to capture the curiosity of the viewer on such a massive level, which ultimately makes him one of the most compelling figures in the industry. His latest work Nope builds once again on his fascination with genre exercises as large-scale events, and the results are a flawed yet enticing piece.
The film centers around the Haywood siblings: OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer), who own and operate a business that rents out trained horses for film productions. Their operations are struggling after the sudden death of their father from a freak accident, leading them to do business with a local attraction led by former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun). However, bizarre occurrences start happening on their secluded ranch. Frequent power outages, strange noises in the distance and the agitated livestock puts the pair on edge. Soon they discover the source of these events: a flying saucer stalking the land which suggests the existence of aliens. In an attempt to seize some financial gain, the Haywoods set out to document this phenomenon and sell their findings for wealth. With the aid of tech wizard Angel (Brandon Perea), what begins as a simple mission to record evidence soon reveals the more sinister intentions behind these otherworldly visitors.
As mentioned, there is a riveting portrait being constructed under the guide of Peele’s gaze. He has an incredible ability to construct sequences of pure horror and tension, while also seeking out the right moments to balance a sense of humor that is calibrated to the tone. Admittedly, that balance, which was perfectly tuned in Get Out, has become less successful with each succeeding effort, and this film is the most cumbersome attempt yet. There is always a sense of mystery at the heart of his scripts, but here the narrative is so overstuffed that it frustrates as often as it engages. Plot threads are introduced that are entirely abandoned and the story can jump around at a disorienting pace. There are no doubt engrossing elements at play within the screenplay, but its execution is clunky and features too many shallow characters to be wholly enthralling.
Despite the deficiencies that lie within the writing, one cannot help but be consumed with elation when Peele becomes laser focused on delivering the thrills of his elaborate sequences. When the setting fully embraces the conventions of horror and science-fiction, one is witnessing an especially entertaining spectacle. There is definite playfulness in the way he sets expectation, and that indulgence is an acknowledgement the viewer comprehends and revels in. There are also moments that play to a much darker sensibility, showcasing scenes that are thoroughly chilling and disturbing. This is a harsher depiction one might expect from Peele, but it’s completely effective in elevating the terror. Utilizing a haunting soundscape, with a great assist from the score by Michael Abels, one cannot help but be pulled into the ominous aura that gleefully frightens and delights.
Kaluuya has already delivered one masterclass performance for this director, and it would be a lie to say his portrayal here is anywhere on the same level. There unfortunately is not as much depth or nuance to the role, which severely limits the impact he needed to present a truly alluring turn. Still, there’s no denying the stoicism he embodies, which heightens the dry, deadpan humor he expertly deploys. It’s a competent performance that pales in comparison to Palmer. Similarly, she also is not playing someone with the most nuance, but Palmer’s radiant energy is too infectious to ignore. Her charming screen presence is a force that pulls focus in every frame, and she is an absolute joy to watch. It’s a shame the rest of the ensemble can’t make much of a dent beyond these two, despite their obvious talent. Sadly, Yeun is given even less material to work with as a character that often struggles to justify inclusion. Perea’s random humor bits are grating at first, but he soon finds a rhythm that makes him an endearing member of the capable, if underutilized, cast.
There is a running commentary in the film regarding the importance of preserving these incidents on film. This objective turns literal at a certain point, when the process of using celluloid on analogue cameras becomes a necessity when modern conveniences fail. It’s a grandiose topic that, like many in this film, is provocative while also seeming muddled and unfulfilled. That is the main conflict which keeps Nope from being a masterful achievement. However, for all its faults, it’s difficult to deny how absorbing the film can be, even when the final outcome maneuvers into unsatisfying spaces. The confidence Jordan Peele displays is exceptional, and when his direction is concentrated, the full force of his artistry is unleashed with wild exuberance. Some may lament his latest creation as not being as polished or thematically rich as previous endeavors, but what is clear is that Peele continues to be a bold perspective to let people entertain their fears within his beguiling showmanship.
Universal Pictures will release Nope on July 22 only in theaters.