At a time where there are only two other directors in Hollywood who can get original, non-superhero movie-related ideas greenlit (1), director Jordan Peele has doubled down on the success of his back-to-back “social horror” thrillers Get Out and Us with a new film that’s more ferociously ambitious than his debut and even more harrowing than its follow-up.
In Nope, Daniel Kaluuya plays OJ Haywood, a ranch hand and animal wrangler descended from the horse riding Black man in Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion, which was the first ever assembly of images we could call a “motion picture.” OJ and his sister Emerald (a career best Keke Palmer) become singularly obsessed with capturing photographic evidence of a UFO terrorizing their land. What initially feels like the sketch comedian turned auteur’s love letter to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind—another in a long lineage of sci-fi pictures about “little green men”—becomes something altogether more vicious.
Nope is a stunning achievement in visual storytelling for a man who got his start on MadTV. Moreover, it is one of the all-time great movies about movies, wrestling as it does with exploitation in Hollywood, both of the below-the-line talent necessary to create these false realities, and the marginalized people often relegated to the footnotes of this industry’s history.
It is a movie concerned with unpacking our society’s obsession with spectacle. We’re living in a time where the escape the cinema provides feels more vital than ever before. So does the drive for people to take any opportunity to turn reality (whether their own or someone else’s) into a show big enough to allow them to transcend their means, regardless of the cost on either side.
Watching Nope was a remarkable experience. In the months leading up to this viewing, I had grown more dissatisfied with everything I watched than I had in my entire life. In 2019, the last year pre-COVID-19, I watched 611 films. Checking my Letterboxd (2) for 2022, I’ve topped out at 34 so far and five of those are just rewatching The Batman over and over like a child clinging to Baby Shark on an iPad. That slowdown comes from a number of things. Battling depression, being overworked, and the trickle of new releases at the pandemic box office. But no factor is more overpowering than me growing ever sicker at the thought of devoting two-plus hours of my time to something that won’t reward me in kind.
Anyone who follows my YouTube channel, The Armchair Auteur, has probably witnessed this ongoing sideshow: Every new mediocre flick I chose to review brought me closer to what I was concerned might be some kind of nervous breakdown. An inability to connect to fiction for me is akin to an inability to dream. If I cannot dream, if I cannot find solace in the fleeting transportation to new and varied fictional worlds. How in the hell will I ever survive the waking nightmare modern society has rather quickly become in recent years?
The kind of escape retreating into the multiplex has provided to me isn’t cowardice. It’s a kind of bravery, to disconnect from the outside world and trust yourself to a screen larger than anything you have at home (3). Every new assembly line Marvel production, every algorithmically-designed, made-for-Netflix flick that began life as a digital thumbnail and little more, makes the idea of a nourishing life at the movies a dwindling proposition at best.
Call it a professional hazard that I spend so much of my time in and out of auditoriums. Since 2013, I’ve split my waking life managing movie theaters and writing about films for various publications. I am someone who literally watches hundreds of movies in any given year and for whom the cinema sometimes feels more like home than home.
Moviegoing (4) is a minor blessing in a world sorely missing those easily identifiable silver linings as we all weather what even soda commercials like to refer to as “these trying times.” Not unlike the “bad miracle” Kaluuya’s OJ references in Nope after watching his father (a memorable, stoic Keith David) struck dead by mysterious debris from the sky, only in this case miles more mundane.
Jordan Peele gets it. He saw an opportunity to take a big swing at a time when no studio wants to take any risks to their bottom line, and tell a big and bold and angry story that has actual staying power. One whose images linger long past the credits. The sort of thing I really needed to see. I think it’s something you need to see, too.
When was the last time you were moved by a film? I mean really moved. Was it even inside the hallowed halls of a movie theater, or were you in bed, pantsless, taking intermittent breaks from viewing to respond to text messages with half-hearted, lowercase “lol”s? I hope there will be more movies like Nope for us to watch together. On the eve of a recession, time is going to come at a premium, so I plan to keep rooting through the muck to help you find the gems (5).
Nope, directed by Jordan Peele, is currently screening at The Charles Theatre, The Parkway Theatre, and The Senator Theatre.
1. Those two men being Martin Scorsese, who must grift tech giants like Netflix and Apple into supporting his cinematic habits, and Christopher Nolan, whose break-up with Warner Bros over the failure of Tenet and HBO Max was so public, I’m genuinely surprised Drake hasn’t written a moody ballad about it.
2. A social media site designed to help cinephiles catalog their viewing habits. Basically Facebook for people who regularly say “cinematography” in everyday conversation. Pinterest for guys who have Pulp Fiction posters hung over their frameless beds like dreamcatchers.
3. Unless you’re rich enough to have some swanky home theater set-up, in which case I question how badly you even need this type of respite from daily life.
4. For those who can physically visit the cinema and feel relatively safe, given the public health minefield doing anything in public has become.
5. “Hov did that, so hopefully you won’t have to go through that.” S. Carter circa 2001.