Nope is Jordan Peele’s third feature film, and it is the most “nope” of any movie I have ever seen. It’s hard to describe exactly what that means without spoiling things, but basically, it’s the feeling you get when you KNOW something is a bad idea expressed in narrative cinema. It’s a one-hundred-and-thirty-minute litany of “nope, no, nuh uh, not me, not in there, forget it”, so Peele really knew what he was about, choosing that title. It’s also the only time I’ve actually heard someone say, “Don’t go in there,” in a movie theater. So it is scary? Not really, kind of. There are some scares, for sure, ranging from the classic jump variety to the weirder, perspective-driven creep outs only a filmmaker in firm control of his camera and his tone can manage. But Nope is not a horror movie, not like Get Out or Us. It’s Jordan Peele’s take on sci-fi, with some scary bits and funny bits thrown in.
Daniel Kaluuya stars as OJ—Otis, Jr.—inheritor of a Hollywood horse training business. He’s part of a long line of Hollywood wranglers, but he doesn’t have the charisma of his father, Otis Senior (Keith David), or his flaky sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer). So when OJ is left in charge following their father’s death, the business is struggling, and OJ is selling horses to a nearby theme park, Jupiter’s Claim, run by a former child star clinging to his glory days (Steven Yeun). Otis Senior dies after being struck in the head by a quarter falling from a great height, believed to be detritus from a private plane. The early going makes Nope seem like an allegory for class and privilege, but one of the joys of this film is that it’s the least complicated of Peele’s features so far.
Oh, there’s a theme. The characters are all dealing with their own traumas, and you can make a case that the allegory is about confronting your trauma and embracing the pain in order to move past it. But Nope is just like, a cool and good time, and it defies the sort of academic readings that Us and especially Get Out inspired. That’s not to say it’s bad—it is not. It’s crazy entertaining and easily Peele’s best-crafted film (and most crafted, it feels like a paean to the practical era of special effects, even with obvious digital elements). It’s not even a case of Nope being a lightweight compared to Peele’s other movies, it’s just that the allegory is more flexible, and the messaging is subtler, so there isn’t going to be one “correct” interpretation. Everyone is going to have their own read. It’s also the outright funniest of Peele’s trio of films thus far, which will cause some people to dismiss it as less important than his other works.
The flip side of that, though, is one of the most upsetting sequences in recent memory. If you are at all sensitive to animal violence, consider this your content warning. The animal in question is a digital creation, but it feels so real, and the circumstance—this is the one that can and has happened—is so awful, that not even understanding a real animal is not involved lessens the impact. While part of me was admiring the use of perspective and framing, the rest of me was trying to claw through the back of my chair to escape the moment. Most of Nope is thrilling and fun, but a little part of it is just horrifying.
It's also chock full of great performances. Daniel Kaluuya made his name on focused, intense performances, but as OJ he is relaxed and laconic, a man of few words and contained expressions. He is wildly funny, though, his timing and delivery spot on. Keke Palmer cranks it up as Emerald, OJ’s hyperactive counterpart, always hustling a side gig—Palmer’s natural charisma is matched by her excellent character work. Brandon Perea effectively manages the comedic relief as a broken-hearted Geek Squad type; Steven Yeun is perfect as a slightly cracked bottle of human pain; and Michael Wincott leans into his gravel voice and deadpan expressions as an artiste-type cinematographer, Antlers Holst. It’s a small ensemble anchored by Kaluuya’s pitch-perfect performance, and Peele’s comedy-with-intent sense of humor. Don’t go in comparing Nope to Get Out, accept it on its own terms as its own thing, and you’ll have a great time. Except for about five minutes in the middle.
Nope is now playing exclusively in theaters.