The Friendly Film Fan Discusses Jordan Peele’s Return to the Big Screen.
In many ways, Jordan Peele is a bellwether for both the best and worst kind of movie fans. On the one hand, the now-iconic director of Get Out – the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture since 1999 – and Us, is one of the few, if not only, filmmakers able to attract large crowds to the cineplex based solely on his name and reputation as both critic and craftsman. Get Out, in particular, was lauded for its searing depiction of white liberals’ use of Black bodies to achieve their own selfish ends without regard to the damage it causes. Us, perhaps less successfully, was more about class divide and the ways in which people take up and drop causes based solely on the moment they’re in. (It’s also more focused on the horror elements than its own subtext.) Both of these films were highly praised for their cinematography, haunting storytelling, standout comedic moments, and stellar performances from majority-Black casts. People loved going out to the theater and discussing the films after the credits ended. The former of them was itself a cultural reset for the whole of the horror genre, and is oft credited with being the picturesque portrait of horror mega-producers Blumhouse’ style and mission (Jason Blum himself even said it was the “perfect Blumhouse movie”). On the other hand, many of the moviegoers Peele attracts to the big screen now come laden with an expectation that whatever he puts out must have something inherently meaningful to say, and that to not lace his scripts with social commentary or some sort of political ideology or thesis simmering underneath is akin to failing or “slipping” in his directorial efforts. It is at the crossroads between these two forces that Peele’s new film, Nope, finds both its greatest success and its most challenging disconnects.
Nope is a straight-up thriller through and through. There are no hidden messages here for viewers to parse, no underbelly for them to wade through between Oscar-season cocktail parties or campaign events. Indeed, it seems to be the first of Peele’s films to not only avoid creating anything to drum up awards season chatter in its narrative, but to actively dismantle the hope of generating it. That’s not to say that it doesn’t deserve to generate awards season chatter, only that unlike Get Out or Us, there’s nothing here that viewers can latch onto to create an “Oscar narrative,” even if that narrative is stretched to its absolute limit in terms of plausibility. This is just rock-solid thriller filmmaking bolstered by some of the best craftwork moviegoers can see on the big screen; and make no mistake, people should see this on a very big screen.
The decision to shoot with IMAX cameras by Peele and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema proves to be an ingenious one, even as much of what viewers ultimately wish to see within their lenses is kept out of frame or shrouded in shadow. The scope of the movie is one of its greatest assets; wide open spaces where anything can go wrong are often the driving force of the tension within the film. If characters need to get to one place to feel safe, and by proxy make the viewers feel safe, the best way to create tension is to separate those spaces as far apart as possible, something that Nope not only understands but continually repeats as it rachets up the intensity from moment to moment; even in its quietest scenes, the looming spectacle of whatever threat the characters face is held together by the frames of Hoytema’s lens, as well as stellar sound design which is given far more power here than even in Peele’s previous feature work. (Every shot also just looks absolutely beautiful. The score, too, though less prominent here than in films where it usually is one of the more notable elements, is utilized almost perfectly, though I would have liked to hear more of it in certain moments.)
But frames can only work as well as what’s contained within them, and Jordan Peele’s directorial efforts are most evident in the performances of yet another stellar ensemble cast, including a world-class Keke Palmer and returning (now Oscar-winner) muse Daniel Kaluuya, whom Peele directed to his first Best Actor nomination in Get Out. Kaluuya is in the film more than viewers might expect given how much of the initial marketing was focused on the Keke Palmer character, but when one has a performer as thoroughly engrossing to watch as him, why limit oneself to minimal use? Kaluuya once again, and often, draws the camera to his face and holds it there, the only true measure of his immeasurable talent being the image of his eye movements in silent moments, saying everything without a word being uttered. Other notable performances include a wonderfully wry Michael Wincott, a vulnerable-yet-commanding Steven Yeun, and supporting cast standout Brandon Perea. The star of the show, however, is the formerly noted Keke Palmer, who here stands out not only as the most charismatic and funniest of the main characters, but has the most to do in terms of what the narrative requires of her character. Palmer is already well-known for her work outside of Nope, but her performance here should rocket her into the stratosphere of the most sought-after talent Hollywood has to offer.
Where Nope begins to dip into what could be metaphor or commentary, but ultimately ends up more confusing in its inclusion than clarifying, is in its sub-narrative regarding a sitcom episode that features a monkey. The sequence is heavily tied to the Steven Yeun character, but while the sequence is arresting on its own, and frankly the most terrifying part of the film as its opening image cements that this will not be a light-hearted or comic subplot, its place in the larger narrative never seems to gel quite the way it seems to hope it will. While Yeun’s undersold and fairly brief performance is yet another in a string of successes for the actor, the inclusion of his character’s backstory seems to be its own story within the story, meant to shed light on what’s happening in the main plot but ultimately only used to reinforce a point the audience doesn’t really need to be reinforced.
On the whole, Nope may not be the cultural force Get Out was or even as tinged in commentary as Us, but it remains far better than it ever needed to be thanks to the efforts of world-class craftsmanship and dynamic performances. Jordan Peele’s thriller is one of the few in 2022 that genuinely embodies exactly what its mission is, and accomplishes that mission (for the most part) with tact and genuine excitement. It looks great, it sounds great, it’s chock-full of great performances, and it’s a perfect big-screen theater experience to round out the main portion of the summer movie season. Even as various directors have attempted to capture the same stylistic flourishes and filmmaking tricks of his trade, the truth remains for better or worse: no one makes movies like Jordan Peele.
I’m giving “Nope” an 8.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.