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Saturday, Apr 1, 2023

Reel Critic: “Nope”

The promotional material for Jordan Peele’s “Nope” made it clear that the director’s otherwise cryptic third feature film would be an alien invasion movie. Trailers and posters featured a UFO, farm animals being sucked into the sky, an isolated desert locale — everything but the little green men themselves. So when Peele opens the film with a chimpanzee brooding on the set of a television shoot, his hands and mouth dripping with the blood of the people lying dead around him, audiences might believe that an act of fiendish narrative trickery is set to ensue. How else would the writer-director famous for making the subversive, socially conscious thrillers “Get Out” and “Us” interlock such disparate subjects as aliens and a murderous ape? The problem with “Nope” is that Peele does find another way, and in forgoing the twist, he robs a film so rich with atmosphere and provocative imagery of the dramatic payoff that would have propelled it to greatness.

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The film’s storyline is best related through a description of its setting, the remote expanse of California desert home to Haywood’s Hollywood Horses. The oldest ranch providing animal services to nearby Hollywood’s production lots, Haywood is family-owned and -operated by the elderly Otis Haywood (Keith David) and his children, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer). It is here on the stark fringe of Tinseltown that a sudden tragedy alerts OJ and Emerald to a chilling extraterrestrial phenomenon surrounding their home. With the ranch business struggling to survive and OJ being forced to sell off the horses to a local carnival owner (Steven Yeun), the siblings seize the chance to monetize their discovery by recruiting a tech store employee (Brandon Perea) and a sagelike cinematographer (Michael Wincott) to help them capture on film the unexplainable events occurring in the skies above Haywood Ranch.

One of the marks of a talented filmmaker is the ability to create atmosphere, that intangible yet vital cinematic element that lets the audience feel what it is like to exist within the world of the film. This is never more needed than for horror movies, whose effectiveness depends so heavily on how deep a sense of dread they instill in the audience. “Nope” is not a perfect film, but in his third swing at scaring the hell out of his viewers, Jordan Peele has certainly perfected the art of horror atmosphere. The auteur takes a subdued approach to the genre. He dismisses rampant gore and unrelenting jump scares in favor of long, quiet sequences whose eerie calm elicits a paranoid focus from the audience anticipating a break in the stillness. It is a method that chooses deliberate, static shots over quick cutting; ambient noise over music; and anxious composure over flailing terror from the actors (Kaluuya’s OJ might be the most amusingly stoic horror protagonist ever put on film). These stylistic choices by Peele level an oppressive uneasiness upon the audience, but they also give way to the undeniably pleasurable assurance of being led through a narrative by a filmmaker in near-total command of his craft.

And it really is near-total. “Nope” is a beautiful film, popping with idiosyncratic visual motifs best represented by the multicolored inflatable air dancers strewn across the dirt of Haywood Ranch. But Peele, who seemingly does everything else right in this movie, falls short in the one discipline that originally earned him the acclaim he currently enjoys: writing. “Get Out” and “Us” were complex, intellectually disturbing films with uncrackable mysteries at their centers; the audience could not grasp the full meaning until the final frame, and even then, unsettling questions lingered. “Nope,” with its ape-on-a-rampage opening leading into a story about aliens, certainly gives the early impression that Peele is winding up for another brain tickler. The mystery builds throughout the opening act, crescendos at the halfway point, but then, just when Peele has conditioned the audience to expect a hard left turn into madness, it drops dead. An answer to the question of the chimpanzee’s connection to the central UFO plot is provided, but it is a severely underwhelming one after such a promising build-up to the boggling twist that never comes.

As such, Jordan Peele’s third directorial effort leaves the lasting impression of a film that came within striking distance of being a modern horror classic. It is certainly good, and any fan of Peele’s work would be a fool to miss it. But to be great, a horror mystery like “Nope” will always need that moment of narrative brilliance that leaves a chill colder than any jump scare ever could.

Jack Torpey

Jack Torpey '24 is an Arts and Culture Editor. 

Torpey is majoring in English and minoring in Film and Media Culture. A frequent producer of film reviews for the Reel Critic column, Torpey has used his time at The Campus to deepen his love of writing and meet fellow writers in the Middlebury community. He is a diehard Yankees fan and a staunch advocate of New York pizza, and when not at work, he can always be found watching a movie with his friends and family.