From an eerie, middle-of-nowhere ranch created in the mind of Jordan Peele, “Nope” is born. Peele’s third film, after “Get Out” and “Us,” stars Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) from Peele’s first film, and Keke Palmer (“Lightyear”), a striking addition to the cast. The pair play OJ and Emerald Haywood, brother and sister horse wranglers who are descendants of the first Black animal trainer and actor in film. Human-eating UFOs, a killer chimpanzee and dead horses make their way into a confusing but intriguing plot. Somehow it feels like there’s too much and nothing going on at the same time. While the plot’s premise doesn’t deviate much from Peele’s other films, the movie itself is a slight letdown in comparison because of it.
The film takes place in inland California, where OJ and Emerald train Hollywood show horses on their spacious, secluded ranch. Things begin heating up when they notice sinister, almost supernatural behavior in the skies above — frequent power outages followed by horses disappearing in plain sight. A neighboring theme park owner (Steven Yeun, “Minari”) also observes this unnatural activity.
The two storylines emphasize the danger of what happens when trying to tame the beast versus letting it roam free. It feels as though Peele is trying to convey an overarching theme of how animals — or creatures — should not be manipulated for human benefit. He does this through his use of the siblings’ horses, a persistent UFO and a largely unnerving chimpanzee from the park owner’s past, all retaliating against efforts to control them.
After seeing Kaluuya and Palmer introduce “Nope” live at a premiere of the film, and knowing Peele’s stellar reputation, I did my best to fully comprehend and love this movie. For two hours and 15 minutes, I stared at the screen with my brows furrowed, trying to make sense of it, but my efforts were lost in the confusion of the various plot points. A UFO as the movie’s main predator felt played out and frankly, slightly ridiculous. One of this movie’s greatest faults concerning its confusing plot is the sudden, frequent flashbacks and flash-forwards. With no transition, we travel from the Hayworth house to a memory from the park owner’s past. I was constantly trying to figure out the movie’s timeline, all to no avail. The many eerie scenes added to the fear factor, but the link between them was often faint. I was left distraught over a violent scene of the young park owner witnessing a chimpanzee brutally murdering a little girl, but the connection between that and real-time scenes of the UFO was weak. Peele left much unexplained, and a little clarity definitely could’ve helped convey the theme more strongly for an increased impact on the audience. The overall themes were illustrated well, but the plot wasn’t so much a fluid story as a collection of moments and memories.
That said, the cinematography was striking. The film, shot on 65mm in IMAX, rivaled, if not surpassed, the camera work of Peele’s previous movies. I appreciated the beauty of the desert, which seemed like a stylistic choice meant to showcase the natural environment where the predators belong and should peacefully remain.
The cinematography was significant in establishing the thriller mood of the film, as scenes lasted an unusually long time to build spine-chilling suspense for viewers. A whirlwind of creepy cinematography also included frantic camera movements struggling to get a glimpse of the predator, inundating viewers with a nagging fear of the unknown ahead. The movie repeatedly traveled back to the traumatizing chimpanzee scene, where a slow motion, muffled effect was employed to distort the scene and make the uncanny feel real. There were moments when every fiber in my body was begging me to look away but somehow I couldn’t.
In accordance with the impressive cinematography, the lead actors delivered amazing performances. I had high expectations for Kaluuya after Peele’s first movie, and he did not disappoint. I was also pleasantly surprised with Palmer’s performance. Her prior acting reputation is more on the comedic side, and it was interesting to see her in a thriller role. She perfectly combined comedic relief with a riveting performance.
“Nope” has overall lower ratings than Peele’s other two films; it’s difficult for Peele to continue to outdo himself after the overwhelming success of his past thrillers. I walked out of the theater after “Nope” with a sense of confusion, and only after doing research could I fully understand the plot. It often felt like the movie was meant to make viewers feel something rather than understand something. The theme of caging predators was interesting, but it wasn’t explored in a clear and cohesive enough manner. Peele tried to accomplish too much with his disjointed ideas. “Nope” had every tool to succeed: the actors, the cinematography, the fan base — but couldn’t quite deliver.
Daily Arts Writer Zara Manna can be reached at email@example.com.