Photo: Universal Pictures
There’s a speech that Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) used to give during safety meetings on sets where he’d work as a provider and handler of trained horses. You can tell by the way his son, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), mutters it on a soundstage at the start of nope, just six months after Otis’ bizarre and disturbing death, that these words have been a familiar, perhaps daunting refrain in his life. OJ may be dedicated to maintaining his father’s legacy, but he’s no talker. When his little sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), makes her late arrival, he immediately cedes the floor to her, and she picks up easily where her brother trailed off.
The spiel has to do with the series of photos from the late 1800s of a galloping horse that was projected as one of the earliest instances of a moving image. The photographer was Eadweard Muybridge, but, Emerald asks, does anyone know who the unnamed jockey riding that horse was? She then reveals that he’s the siblings’ great (x3) grandfather, proof that the Haywoods have been in showbiz since its pre-dawn era. Now, though, they’re barely holding on, having inherited the horse business right around when Hollywood has started finding it easier to opt for computer-generated animals.
nope is a work of sly devastation from writer-director Jordan Peele that, like his previous films Get Out and us, is a horror comedy with a speculative premise — in this case, by way of the saucer-shaped UFO lurking in the clouds about the Haywood Ranch in Agua Dulce. Unlike in Get Outwhere Kaluuya’s character Chris discovers he’s been lured into a trap by a cabal of body-snatching white liberals, or uswhere malevolent doppelgangers swarm out of the earth like collectors coming for a long-overdue bill, in nope, the danger is, to a certain degree, opt-in. The title is a slasher movie joke, a sentiment to be howled at characters who traipse obliviously to their doom by venturing into unlit basements or following mysterious sounds into the woods.
OJ, a laconic modern-day cowboy sprung from the unlikely confines of Los Angeles county, and Emerald, a swivel-limbed goofball who pitches her services in everything from directing to craft services, really do know better. They just can’t stay away. nope has some revelations up its sleeve, but it isn’t as twist-driven as Get Out or us. Its tension comes from OJ and Emerald’s determination to get footage of the UFO before the rest of the world finds out about it — not just some YouTube video, but what they deem “the Oprah shot,” the incontrovertible documentation that will vault them into adjacent notoriety.
They aren’t alone in these efforts. Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), an extraterrestrial-obsessed Fry’s Electronics employee, inserts himself into the process after installing security cameras for the Haywoods. Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a leathery veteran cinematographer who has the same look and desiccated aura as Viggo Mortensen’s character in Crimes of the Future, gets lured in with the promise of a legendary shot and the challenge of capturing something that temporarily disables whatever electronics it comes near. But the most interesting side character isn’t a co-conspirator but a neighbor — Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who with his wife Amber (Wrenn Schmidt) now runs Jupiter’s Claim, the chintzy Western theme park that borders on the ranch.
Jupe’s heyday as the sidekick on a movie called Kid Sheriff was decades ago, but he still has the easy smile and smooth affect of a trained performer, qualities that remain unsettlingly consistent even when he’s talking about a nightmarish incident from his past. nope goes to some gnarly places with its alien flyer, which darts through the cloud cover and down toward the ground with an agility that’s nothing like a human aircraft. Peele and his DP Hoyte Van Hoytema make the most of the vast skies over the gulch the Haywood place is tucked into, the bright days and overcast nights equally alarming reminders of how much space there is overhead, and how vulnerable the tiny human figures below it seem.
But nothing in the movie is as troubling as the intermittent flashbacks to what happened on the soundstage of the short-lived multicam sitcom Jupe starred in in the ’90s. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to stay in the business after enduring that, but Jupe, like Emerald and OJ, lingers on its outskirts as though there were no other options, with posters on his office wall for a reality program about this family , as well as a live show addition to the theme park that turns out to be ill-advised. nope proposes that we are trapped in a dysfunctional relationship with celebrity and spectacle that we can’t extricate ourselves from, and it’s not always subtle about this — one of the film’s few off moments involves a would-be video journalist in a mirrored helmet talking up the wonders of getting famous off footage even as he’s in peril. The explanation’s unnecessary when the plot of the film rests on the characters’ first impulse, upon seeing signs of alien life, to put it on camera to prove that they’re first.
Well, to prove they’re first, and also to have ownership of those images. Everyone knows Muybridge’s name, after all, and no one knows the jockey’s. Emerald and OJ, with their contrasting personalities, jostle against each other in ways exacerbated by a childhood in which Otis trained OJ in the job while neglecting his daughter. And yet the shared gesture of love the siblings came up with involves pointing at their own eyes and then pointing at the other — I see you. It’s why Otis can’t bring himself to walk away from his father’s failing ranch, because it was a game-changer, a history-maker, the only Black-owned horse business in Hollywood. It’s why Jupe, having had his moment of fame as “the Asian kid” in some long-ago children’s flick, nevertheless sits surrounded by memorabilia of his tokenized past.
There’s power in images, and in having the world’s eyes on you for something, for anything, even if it can be a fleeting, ridiculous sort of affirmation — the saddest refrain of “representation matters” possible. “This dream you’re chasing, where you end up at the top of the mountain?” Antler’s informs Emerald. “It’s the one you never wake up from.” In Peele’s thrilling, astringent movie, the characters risk everything in their attempts to clamber up that summit, to grab something for themselves, to continue having skin in the game. Sure, that may sound foolish, but what else are you supposed to do when it’s the only one in town?