Westerns can be scary too

Images courtesy Universal Pictures.

8/10 Writer/director/producer Jordan Peele couldn’t resist releasing Nope, his follow-up to a film about doppelgangers riddled with 11:11 imagery, on a Friday the 22nd in 2022. Even his release dates are ripe with metatext.

Agua Dulce, California- OJ and Em Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) run Haywood’s Hollywood Horses Ranch. The family, who claim to be descended from the black jockey who was the subject of the first ever moving picture and the only black-owned horse handlers in Hollywood, have fallen quickly on hard times after the death of their father, Otis Sr. (Keith David), and are selling horses to stay afloat. When they discover a flying saucer that has made a home on their ranch, they decide to team up with renowned IMAX cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) and local Fry’s Electronics sales tech Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) to get “the Oprah shot,” what Em posits will be indisputable proof of alien life.

Just like Get Out and Us, Nope is full of big ideas. It’s a movie about the clash between man and nature and the nature of that relationship. For all the crazy stuff that happens in Nope, what the movie thinks is even crazieris the compulsion to point a camera at it. In Nope, getting the shot is salvation and purpose. Getting the shot is what will protect the Haywoods, somehow, and it’s the driving force for their helpers, another project for a lifelong cameraman for Holst and a distraction from a mundane day job for Torres.

Through heavy intimation that the flying saucer is connected to Judeo-Christian mythology, Nope suggests the instinct to capture amazing natural phenomena goes back millennia. In 2022, Em Haywood sees something amazing and decides to point a camera at it. Thousands of years ago, someone sees the same creature and frantically describes it to the one guy who knows how to write.

On a more basic level, Nope is a movie about working with wild animals and the unique mentality of respect for the danger they pose, but without fear. The film’s anxiety is mostly pointed toward the alien ship, of course, but most of the damage is done by horses and Gordy, the chimpanzee (Terry Notary through motion-capture technology). Horses and chimps are kind of the perfect expressions of this – no one would call them dangerous and humans work with them regularly, but they can kill very easily. The hero of Nope is the one who learns to apply that mentality to the saucer.

At several moments, Nope flashes back to 1998, when Gordy, the star of a sitcom, went berserk and killed most of his co-stars, and Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), who survived Gordy’s rampage as a child actor, remains in the film as a friend of the Haywoods who has commercialized the attack to the best of his ability. This plot thread, with only a purely thematic connection to the present-day conflict with the UFO, is really what defines Nope as a different type of viewing experience – theme is separate from narrative here. It demands an open mind ready to make associative leaps, which most commercial films do not.

While there’s little real horror here, Kaluuya’s disaffected shambling and Palmer’s staccato dance-like walk each resemble Us’ tethered, in their own way.

Nope is also a movie about Peele’s own anxiety about his celebrity in a country where celebrity is of dubious value. Viewers expected and were sold a horror film like his prior two, and Nope devotes a long, spectacular stretch to jump scares playing with those expectations.

Many viewers may walk out of the picture dissatisfied that there weren’t more scares and there wasn’t a hook ending, but a deceptive advertising campaign is critical to the picture’s message – making a movie or a TikTok post isn’t the only way for the Haywoods to handle their flying saucer, and horror isn’t the only way for Peele to handle a movie.

The plot’s simplicity is probably the biggest letdown, but what’s the plot of Alien, often cited as the best sci-fi horror ever shot? There’s a wild animal on a ship, and the cast has to deal with it.

Nope takes a hard turn in its runtime from horror to Western, embracing the California desert and horse ranch in a way that makes you feel foolish for expecting anything else. Mastery over nature, specifically the white man’s mastery over the lawless plains and deserts of the American West, is a central theme of the ancient genre, one that Peele puts his stamp on with this picture. 

For all its criticism of spectacle, Nope makes a massive spectacle of itself. It’s Peele’s first foray into film, bulky 65mm IMAX film with an almost square aspect ratio in some scenes, and it’s his first big summer blockbuster, with Universal making a $68 million bet on the third-run director. In 2019, Us was the best-performing non-franchise entry at the domestic box office, and on the other side, Nope’s $44 million bow was the best opening for an original film since the COVID-19 crisis began.

Peele is the man. He’s the auteur that can command audiences into seats right now on a level that’s competitive with superheroes. Not Denis Villeneuve, not Quentin Tarantino, Peele.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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