“Nope” (2022) – “What is a bad miracle? They got a word for that?” – Otis ‘OJ’ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya)
Six months ago, OJ (which stands for Otis Jr.) witnessed a horrible freak accident, one caused by the said bad miracle that killed his father, Otis Sr. (Keith David), and injured one of their horses, Ghost.
Ghost survived, but this majestic animal’s spirit is bruised and a bit frayed.
OJ is frazzled too, but he generally swallows his words and feelings. He lived in the shadow of his ambitious father, the owner of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, a stallion and mare training operation for the film and television industries. However, with Otis Sr. gone, this 30-something introvert – who seems like he never wanted to work in the business – drives back and forth to La La Land from HHH’s secluded ranch in the dry, desert hills of Agua Dulce, a remote municipality just northeast of Santa Clarita, Calif.
His sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), helps out on rare occasions. However, she’d rather be singing, dancing, or listening to records (and sometimes, this gregarious personality spins all three pursuits simultaneously) than walking mustangs, tending to the stables, and shoveling horse-you-know-what.
Well, their daily grinds and grief screech to a halt because a UFO (yes, a UFO) – that soars over Agua Dulce – has immediately captured the Haywood siblings’ attention.
Jordan Peele has captured the horror world’s attention since his landmark directorial debut, “Get Out” (2017), fascinated and frightened audiences. That film – an unimaginable concoction of “The Stepford Wives” (1975), “Frankenstein” (1931), “Roots” (1977), and more – earned four Academy Award nominations, including Jordan winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.
His masterful follow-up, “Us” (2019), married sinister doppelgängers with the 1986 Hands Across America project, a wonderfully bizarre match made in hell.
Peele isn’t thinking out of the box. He’s contemplating while off the planet!
In his third outing, this writer/director, again, wields unthinkable bold ideas because “Nope” is not an ordinary Unidentified Flying Object story. Peele gifts us with, perhaps, a half-dozen scenes that will leave most moviegoers flat-out floored via a pair of shocking grand concepts, good old-fashioned scare tactics, and a fantastic, Oscar-worthy sound design.
Horseshoes rumble on the desert floor and through our abdomens, and howling winds strangle the breath in our throats, especially on a lonesome locale where the crunch beneath a shoe’s sole or a simple flick of a switch perks up our ears.
Yes, the movie’s central, earnest premise earns sky-high praise. From that perspective, “Nope” stands just as tall as “Get Out” and “Us”, and the aforementioned (without explicitly mentioning) six demonstrative moments are the goo and glue of nightmares for the foreseeable future. However, the overall execution of this one-of-kind cinematic thesis frequently stalls due to clumsy exchanges, clunky editing at times, a supposedly-critical supporting character becomes a bothersome distraction rather than an essential element, and recurring flashbacks that belong in a different movie.
With all of that noise, the third-act payoffs don’t land like they should, at least to this critic, and the movie’s 130-minute runtime could’ve easily trimmed down to 100 or even 90 and still focused on the immediate wonders and threats.
Speaking of wonders and threats, let’s get back to the story. OJ and Emerald wish to capture their new visitor on film, and hey, they might make a small fortune and also contemplate that Oprah may call. So, they enlist a Fry’s Electronics tech team employee, Angel (Brandon Perea), to install two video cameras that will help them cash in! Angel’s technical competency is the stuff of legends, but his personal life has fallen into tatters of the brokenhearted. Still, his humble absurdity delivers and lands comic relief versus the day’s pressing matters. In fact, Palmer and Perea bring engaging and infectious upbeat energy, which counters Kaluuya’s deliberately subdued performance.
Emerald and OJ have decades of history, and they tolerate a semi-cordial relationship, but her bohemian tendencies and his leveled pragmatism clash. The brother-sister tension effectively plays out in the present-day as Emerald often gushes over her interests, while OJ wishes she’d lend more elbow grease at home.
However, the film swings and misses during its one attempt to reflect upon their childhood years. Peele wants us to connect to a specific third-act scene, based on Emerald’s memory when she was nine-years-young along with OJ’s massive leap of faith from a first-act observation. It’s a critical moment, but the script doesn’t flush out the remembrance from yesterdecade enough. Hence, this Haywood memory feels matter-of-fact at best rather than a profound emotional link between brother and sister.
Perhaps, several Haywood reflections ended up on the cutting room floor. Instead, the movie dedicates significant minutes to recollections of an altogether different experience, one that has nothing to do with OJ and Emerald.
Granted, this particular incident – from 1998 – is a sicko, twisted horror show, one that will leave a theatre deathly silent and utterly aghast. On the other hand, the linkage between this ’98 happening and ‘22 is a stretch. Sure, it’s there, but it mainly feels disconnected from the movie’s primary driver and, quite frankly, unnecessary. Although a separate short film about this unnamed appalling occurrence certainly feels in order, “Nope” needed to spend more time with OJ and Emerald’s relationship.
Well, the Haywoods form a working partnership with a cinematographer (Michael Wincott) to assist with securing their Oprah shot, but Antlers Holst (Wincott) mumbles and broods with the usefulness of door stopper helplessly sitting in an abandoned building, and every minute with this character feels like a waste of time. Although, Antlers’ presence possibly serves as a parallel role from a massively famous 20th-century movie, but that’s just a guess.
Steven Yeun is quite good as OJ and Emerald’s neighbor, Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park. Ricky and his wife Amber (Wrenn Schmidt) cope with the UFO much differently than the Haywoods, as their entrepreneurial endeavors and curiosity take them two steps forward. At the same time, OJ and Emerald would rather observe while peddling backward a step. These contrasts in styles clearly play out with their separate encounters but also with the makeup of their properties, which are curious to consider.
Peele and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema capture wondrous big-screen eye candy in the barren desert. Unknown, out-of-this-world technology meets, but doesn’t necessarily greet, a wholly vulnerable landscape and its inhabitants, and Peele and Van Hoytema visit these confrontations with designed mystery and sleight of hand that peak our and the on-screen players’ interest and fear.
Will we get more than just subtle hints of these friends or foes?
Well, the film resonates with epic western vibes, as our heroes stare upwards into cumulus clouds, and the visitors look back at the baking desert (via sweeping drone shots). It’s a standoff, so you’ll have to see.
The crucial visual stunners – that deliver straight-up awe – work, but we also have to muddle through odd detours to get there. During the biggest moments, the camera – sometimes – awkwardly volleys between OJ, Emerald, and Angel and seemingly doesn’t know where to place the focus. A dash from the Haywood house and a third-act attempt to film the out-of-towners come to mind right away. The choreography just feels off, and while conjuring a final game plan, our protagonists sort of mutter through the particulars with all the pep and interest of reviewing car insurance premiums.
OJ usually has trouble finding his voice, but he’s no dummy, and we hope that he follows Otis Sr.’s advice: “Just execute, and we got no more problems.”
Peele executes big-time during key spots, and fans shouldn’t miss this film. However, generally speaking, can I recommend “Nope”? Well, this movie feels like a spectacular maybe.
⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed and written by: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Steven Yemen, Michael Wincott, Wrenn Schmidt, and Keith David
Runtime: 130 minutes
Image credits: Universal Pictures