Nope, Peele’s latest cinematic offering, is something I’ve been looking forward to pretty much since I left the cinema after watching Us. Peele’s work, from Get Out onwards, has not only helped solidify horror and genre cinema in general into the critical mainstream, but is also, crucially, really fucking entertaining in the process. Nope, billed as a sci-fi horror and starring Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, instantly had promise just on the basis of the strength of his previous work.
And, let’s get right to the point here – it’s a really great film. Peele’s scripts have that sharp sense of humour shot through them that stops things dragging, and the man knows how to put together a genuinely unsettling atmosphere. Kaluuya brings a near-unmatchable screen presence to his strong, stoic, and silent Otis Junior, while Keke Palmer is the star of the show here, effusive, expressive, and emotional.
I like to think of myself as what we can in my country a real Billy Big Baws when it comes to horror, but Nope really got under my skin – there’s a great balance of detail work and great, sweeping spectacle that creates some genuinely frightening moments. It’s got a brilliant blend of blockbuster sci-fi horror and character-centric family focus that reminds me a whole lot of Signs, which I mean in the most complimentary way possible (since it’s M Night Shymalan’s last uncontestably great bit of cinema).
But more than that, it’s a film about filmmaking and storytelling, and the functions – and downsides – those serve in our lives. Almost all directors will have a crack at this kind of narrative at some point, and usually to mixed effect, because telling a story about stories constantly threatens to swallow the rest of the movie whole alongside it.
I think my favourite part of this movie, for this reason, is Steven Yeun’s subplot. Maybe just because I’m a huge fan of Yeun’s post-Walking Dead work – if you needed an excuse to watch Boots Riley’s fantastic Sorry to Bother You, his turn in that should be enough – but there’s a real deftness and craft to his small sub-plot that draws out the major themes of the film in a way I admire.
Yeun plays Ricky Park, a one-time child star whose early acting career was irrevocably marred by a hideous tragedy on the set of his cutesy late-nineties sitcom vehicle, Gordy’s House. The titular Gordy, a chimp (played, obviously, by Terry Notary, who we here at No But Listen will never stop banging on about), ends up out of control and viscously attacking several of the cast members (in a sequence that genuinely made me want to be a bit sick, actually). It’s the worst kind of spectacle the film can conjure, a nasty marring of the sweet, saccharine style of sitcom it’s trying to parody.
And Ricky still views it through that lens – years later, when we meet him, he keeps a collection of memorabilia from the show, and only refers to the event through the lens of an SNL sketch written to mock the tragedy. Spectacle, for Ricky, is a protective measure, a way to put distance between himself and what he’s been through, in much the same way the rest of the characters of Nope use it. Capturing images, storifying them, injecting our own stories into them, that’s far safer than the raw, real emotion reality offers. We can make sense of stories, images, film, and can use those to contain the things we often can’t.
And that’s really the genius of Nope: it’s a story about stories that manages to critique them and our consumption of them while also telling a great one in the process, a sort of mind-bending Jenga tower of pieces that has no right to hold together as well as it does. It’s a brilliant sci-fi story that works on a number of levels, held together by great performances and Jordan Peele’s inimitable eye for unusual story-crafting and foreboding dread. Third time really is the charm – even when the first two were pretty damn charming, too.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via The Verge)