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You’ve seen ‘Nope.’ Now let’s make sense of it.

Sorting out Jordan Peele’s most opaque project

With the release of his third feature, Nope, Jordan Peele has solidified his reputation for making ambitious, interesting thrillers that mystify enormous audiences. 

He’s hit the box office trifecta: Get Out, Us, and now Nope each opened at No. 1. He upended the rule that such a feat is not possible without superheroes or preexisting intellectual property like novels about a Hobbit. But Nope illustrates a challenge for the 43-year-old writer/director and his audience.

Does Peele continue to create films that are ever more oblique, knowing that a cadre of interpreters will rise up, think pieces in tow, to fill plot holes with theory? He could drive us all a bit mad as we try to navigate the M.C. Escher paintings inside his head. Or, does he wrangle those impulses, and turn out films that are as complete and coherent as they are daring? We know he’s capable of it because he did it with Get Out. Which is not to say that every Peele film must be a masterpiece of allegory. But they should be legible to a viewer who isn’t acquainted with every bit of Peele’s personal psychology.

Peele opens this film about filmmaking on the set of a sitcom where something awful has taken place: the star chimpanzee of a fictional ’90s sitcom called Gordy’s Home! has gone rogue. Flashbacks that illustrate exactly what took place are sprinkled throughout Nope. But basically, it’s this: A displeased Gordy alternates between menacing and dining on his colleagues until someone ends the carnage with a gunshot. One co-star survived after Gordy had chewed off half her livelihood — her face. Another, a child actor named Ricky “Jupe” Park, cowers under a table as the attack unfolds, and survives physically unscathed. Just before the ape is shot, it gives Jupe a fist bump. And because American culture can turn just about anything into entertainment, regardless of how gruesome or traumatic, the artifact that preserves this incident is a Saturday Night Live sketch.

Years later, unable to continue a solid acting career, Jupe (Steven Yeun) has cast himself as the star of a cowboy Western theme park called Jupiter’s Claim. It sits in the valley of Agua Dulce, about 40 miles outside of Los Angeles, where Blazing Saddles was shot. On the other side of the valley is the ranch home of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, where Otis Haywood Jr., or OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), is trying to rescue the debt-ridden family business of on-set horse wrangling after his father’s death. OJ and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) are hired for a shoot, but are dismissed when their horse, Lucky, gets spooked by a reflection in a visual effects ball and kicks his human co-star. Lucky, and the Haywoods’ business, have been made obsolete by greenscreen.

OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya, left) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer, right) in Nope, which was written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele.

Universal Pictures

But the siblings may have been gifted something by the universe: the opportunity for one perfect shot, an “Oprah shot,” a “money shot,” a shot that could be life-changing, if only they can capture it. A flying saucer is parked above Agua Dulce, obscured in a cloud that does not move. It spooks the horses — understandably, given its appetite for them. And though it may look innocuous, it proves to be deadly if provoked or investigated.

Emerald prods OJ into filming the phenomenon, the “bad miracle,” as he calls it, so they can sell the evidence, make a mint, and bask in the fame that is sure to follow. No grainy Zapruder-film stuff like the footage taken by Navy pilots for them, though. The Haywoods will have something epic. Is it crass? Sure. Do they need the money? Also sure.

And so OJ and Emerald load up on surveillance equipment at the electronics store where the shop’s resident tech nerd, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), insinuates himself into the project. Together, the three of them make a gutsy, ragtag indie film crew. Their mission gets complicated by the fact that when the creature in the UFO descends to feed, it cuts the electricity to everything around it — radios, cellphones, car alternators, batteries, etc.

OJ discovers through trial and dangerous error that the creature has rules of engagement. Looking straight at the beast or its flying saucer vehicle? Big no-no. “He’s big, he’s mad, and he’s got a lot of spirit,” OJ says of the extraterrestrial. “But anything with a spirit can get broke.” OJ and Emerald attempt to execute their plan to break the monster — once it starts raining blood down on their family home, Carrie-style, it seems fair to characterize it as a monster — and film it. That project takes on even more urgency once OJ discovers that the monster has obliterated Jupiter’s Claim and an audience gathered there. News coverage of the mystery convinces an irascible veteran cinematographer, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) that he should join the Haywoods on their mission, employing the old-school tactics that were so breezily dismissed in favor of greenscreen at the film’s beginning.

Shot in IMAX, Nope offers up much to enjoy: helicopter shots that will inspire envy in anyone who’s ever picked up a Super 8, awe-inspiring set pieces, a caffeinated Palmer performance balanced with the sobering stoicism of Kaluuya, a ravenous space creature that looks like something that took flight from the sketch pads of fashion designer Iris van Herpen (whose frocks are the result of a marriage of new technology and old-school couture dressmaking, much like Nope is a marriage of IMAX technology and old-school filmmaking sensibilities), and a Michael Abels score that prickles one’s cortisol stores all the way through the big reveal.

And yet none of these impressive parts cohere to deliver a satisfying whole. Why not? Perhaps because Peele lost track of all the various elements he was trying to braid together. The film clocks in at 2 hours and 11 minutes, but Peele has said the first cut was three hours and 45 minutes. Nope is a story about beauty and belief, exploitation and trauma, undergirded by a meta narrative about technology. If his second outing, Us, was a warning to himself, Peele’s third film appears, among other things, to be a warning to Hollywood that its addiction to self-celebratory, exclusionary practices and cowboy shibboleths will lead to self-destruction. In some ways, it is an enjoyable summer blockbuster that, in the words of sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, has a syllabus before it has an audience.

There are several thematic tracks running in Nope. One is the element of spectacle, specifically as Peele chooses to invoke it by including a biblical verse, Nahum 3:6, as a preamble:  “And I will cast abominable filth upon thee, and make thee vile, and will set thee as a spectacle.”

Another is the history of moviemaking, as Peele retcons the story of 19th-century motion picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. The Haywoods, Emerald announces, with all the showmanship of a circus ringmaster, are descendants of the Black jockey in Muybridge’s famous set of cabinet cards titled The Horse in Motion. “From the moment pictures could move,” Emerald says, “we had skin in the game.” That’s true, and it’s also true that for just as long, white industry stakeholders have done their darndest to erase and minimize that Black presence. Peele is not picking a fight with Muybridge, but with the industry that’s grown out of his foundational storytelling technologies while casting aside the Black people who played — and continue to play — a central role in its development.

There is power in capturing the truth, especially when a prevailing narrative has fixed itself in the minds of the public. In the late 1870s, Muybridge was taking on a beautiful, but untrue, portrayal of how horses were depicted in full gallop. Painters loved to show horses fully airborne with their legs splayed out forward and backward in an equine grand jeté.

Muybridge’s images revealed that there were moments when a galloping horse would be airborne, but its legs were tucked under it, building up momentum to propel itself through the next stride. While the painted images offered an idealized aesthetic grace, Muybridge’s photographs offered reality — no, documentary. There’s a line comedian Richard Pryor used in a joke about getting caught cheating on his wife: “Who are you going to believe? Me, or your lying eyes?” The revolutionary aspect of Muybridge’s work was that, when it came to equine movement, our eyes were lying to us.

Muybridge, besides creating the first motion picture, that two-second clip of a Black jockey astride a horse, also invented a projector called the zoopraxiscope, an early precursor to the motion picture projector. Peele sprinkles homages to Muybridge’s story throughout Nope. Some are literal, like a nod to the popup darkroom Muybridge brought in his single-horse carriage, to the process of instantaneous film development that gave his images so much credibility. When it comes to being believed about something as fantastical as a billowy, undulating, people-eating monster hiding in a cloud that never moves, Emerald understands the power of images. She understands the power of being believed.

Daniel Kaluuya (left) with writer/producer/director Jordan Peele (right) on the set of Nope.

Glen Wilson/Universal Pictures

The wishing well camera at Jupiter’s Claim uses an instant development process of silver slates similar to Muybridge’s. Even as rescue workers are hurtling to the scene, Emerald is using every last bit of her strength to power the camera and take photos of the fully unfurled monster and the blow-up cowboy it’s struggling to ingest. Even though there’s an ill-defined riff between Emerald and her Luddite brother (OJ stubbornly clings to his flip phone while his sister uses a smart one), they complement each other. They need each other, if their work is to be successful. 

The white menace in the sky knocks out electricity, making it difficult to document its violence, and so they find a suitable analog camera. The menace reacts with violence when you look straight at it, and so OJ averts his gaze. OJ and Emerald alert others to the rules of surviving the monster and those who don’t listen perish. The big, emotionally fulfilling crescendo of Nope isn’t in injuring or conquering the monster, but bearing witness to it, documenting its existence, and surviving it. That’s how things work in this world: Pics or it didn’t happen.

As I took in Peele’s IMAX spectacle, I kept thinking about Endlings, a Celine Song play that premiered at the New York Theatre workshop in 2020. The play is about immigration and struggling against white definitions and expectations of artistic authenticity. Filled with self-doubt about the life she has chosen for herself in New York, a character shares this nugget of wisdom:

“This painter I know 

Once gave me the most beautiful advice about being an artist: 

‘Treat your heroes like your peers.’ ”

Writer/producer/director Jordan Peele on the set of Nope.

Glen Wilson/Universal Pictures

Nope is very much an exhibition of what happens when Peele is extended the budget that affirms him as a peer among his New Hollywood heroes. But it also feels, subconsciously, like a film about Peele’s own workaday frustrations with his industry. That’s the challenge of Nope: effectively marrying ideas about belief and credibility — underscored by race — with the effects of trauma and exploitation and wrapping them together in a work that’s both celebratory about the process of filmmaking but critical of the industry that propels it. Basically, it’s a film about Peele’s experience as a Black filmmaker and the weight that comes from being the person expected to deliver cinematic and intellectual grandeur.

The options are spectacle, or dismissal, with little room for beauty. No wonder he’s so in his head. Of course, films about filmmaking often invite accusations of solipsism. And yet, stories of racial exclusion and erasure are part of the history of Hollywood. And in the face of chronic denialism, the stakes of proving that this white menace is real, by documenting it, feel particularly loaded.

There’s a great deal of Steven Spielberg in Nope, but it also functions as a Once Upon a Time in Hollywood/Quentin Tarantino diss track. Where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood gazes upon the past with a certain romanticism toward white male primacy and its most famous avatar, the cowboy, Nope’s monster hoovers up those creations and destroys them.

Peele knows that his films will be obsessed over and picked apart for every red herring, every Easter egg, every semblance of meaning and message. There’s an allure to writing for a rabid, Extremely Online fan base — no matter what you do, they will interpret your decisions as evidence of genius. How many other filmmakers working today can send the internet into a scavenger hunt for details about a bit of cinema history from 1878?

“Perhaps the way one tells how alive a particular art form is, is by the latitude it gives for making mistakes in it, and still being good,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 1966 essay collection, Against Interpretation. By this measure, Nope‘s heart beats loud, strong, and vibrant.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.