Peele’s first film Get Out was just anointed as one of the 100 best movies of all time on the recent update of Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade survey of critics, and of the four films from the last ten years to be added, it’s probably the one with the best non-recency bias argument. Get Out visualized the dark thematic diamond at its core while also being a crowdpleaser, and the critical and commercial success of Peele’s debut will color everything he does for the rest of his career. How this has impacted Peele through three films is like he’s doing a career in reverse. First-time filmmakers often feel the need to cram too much into their debuts, like this will be the only time a studio was dumb enough to let them work and every idea they’ve ever had must be included. See Sorry to Bother You for the ur-example of this. Peele didn’t do this with Get Out, but both of his follow-ups, Us and now Nope, have fallen towards this direction.
The character of Ricky Park most exemplifies this. After watching Nope, one can imagine the unfinished script Peele had about a former child actor getting pulled out of a drawer and merged with the one he had about UFO’s. The film’s prologue is a vague series of sounds and images on a film set where something has clearly gone horribly wrong, and as Nope continues, it’s soon revealed that young Ricky was on this set, hiding from a chimp costar who went berserk. From this backstory of a supporting character, Nope generates some of its tensest moments, as well as it’s funniest scene from former sketchmeister Peele, but it feels like it belongs in a different film. While Ricky’s subplot is able to be thematically linked, it sits clumsily outside of the film’s main plot. This is made more apparent by Yeun’s fantastic performance and the stakes of his character, such that a two-hour film just about him is justified by the 45 minutes that Nope spends on him.
Nope’s divided focus is at least split between two eminently watchable parties. In addition to Yeun’s mysterious and obsessive performance, the Haywood’s form as credible a family unit as has been put to screen. The stoic OJ and the electric Em complement each other onscreen and in the viewer’s imagination. Em and her father never share the screen, but a scene of all of them at the dinner table is immediately conjurable. David’s few moments of screentime and some light exposition place him as the whole of his children’s halves, the embodiment of OJ’s competence and Em’s charisma, and therefore the capable steward of the family business who’s able to sell a producer on his value to them and then deliver the goods on set. In their father’s absence, OJ can’t sell and Em can’t deliver, leaving them with nothing but the selling off of their animal assets to Ricky. Watching both siblings figure out an alternate plan and execute it is reward enough, but Kaluuya and Parker invigorate their relationship with shared hand signals and celebrations. The film’s best moments are these effortless evocations of a life spent together, and Peele finds space for them when his film needs them most.
Nope is thematically diffuse enough that different viewers will latch most tightly to distinct threads, but for this viewer, the film is most cohesive when talk of miracles is onscreen. Peele is aiming for a kind of religious take when he recreates Michelangelo’s Creation, and he’s talked about a specific visualization of angels for his idea of the UFO. The rest is up to the viewer, and how they interpret the characters’ reactions to being in the presence of the statistically improbable. Ricky’s takeaway image from the chimp attack is the bloody shoe of one of his castmates, sitting upright on its heel despite everything happening around it. This image, plus his unlikely emerging from the incident unscathed, has given him a sense of fate, that’s he’s important and blessed and should act as such. The shoe in its position is just as unlikely as a coin falling through OJ Sr’s head, but OJ Jr would never interpret this event as sent from heaven. In Ricky, Nope finds the human need to instill order onto either total randomness or the unknowability of nature, an inherently hubristic position that, like myths about Greek gods, sets Ricky up for a fall. OJ greets his miracle with more reticence and skepticism, and the film rewards him for it.
Outside of thematic concerns, Nope is Peele’s most effective blend of action and horror. The latter is pitched at its lowest volume of his three films, but a short segment in Nope qualifies as the most unsettling thing he’s ever done. While Get Out and Us both had effective chase sequences, the scale and choreography of Nope makes those other two films look tiny. Once OJ and Em resolve to get footage of whatever’s in the clouds, the film becomes a caper involving a local tech buff (Brandon Perea) and a grizzled cinematographer (Michael Wincott). The execution of their plan, buffeted along by the rousing adventure score of Michael Abels, is worthy of comparison to the elegant simplicity of Top Gun: Maverick, the year’s other big action showcase. Objectives are clear, wrinkles arise and are navigated, and opportunities for heroism and sacrifice are taken advantage of.
Part of the Haywood’s’ sales pitch is how one of the first recorded moving images, captured by Edward Muybridge, was of their ancestor riding a horse. They’ve been in the business since before pictures could move, with added emphasis by Em. Peele’s outsized success and growing skill means that he’ll also continue to be a part of cinematic history. Even if his films thus far have featured notable flaws that keep this viewer from fully embracing his work, each has been an event in their own right. What movies need now more than anything is someone who can put butts in seats. Peele can undoubtedly do that. B