Nope (2022)

When Nope was announced earlier this year, Brandon reached out to ask if I wanted to do coverage of it and, of course, my answer was “Yes.” Get Out was my top film of 2017, and I was passionate about giving Us a five star review in 2019. The only issue was that, when Nope came out in mid-July, I was going through a pretty rough, prolonged breakup. I missed the screenings they were holding at the drive-in and wanted to see it so badly that when a copy proverbially fell off the proverbial back of a proverbial truck, I immediately watched it, but not without some difficulty. The audio quality was awful, so much so that some of the dialogue was virtually inaudible, and the video cohesion also suffered, especially in the night scenes. I was lucky to have a friend over watching it who had seen the film in theaters, so she was able to describe what was happening at times when the truck-fallen video didn’t have the resolution to speak for itself (most notably in scenes with Jean Jacket). And so when people asked if I had seen it, I said “Yes,” but for a long time, I hadn’t really. If anything, I had seen a bunch of shadows on a cave wall. But all that has changed, and although as I sit here on the first day of the new year fulfilling a very late promise, I’ve seen the real deal, and I can’t go back to the cave. 

Nope largely takes place on the Haywood Hollywood Horse Ranch, a legacy and a legend which has passed the prime of its life. Otis Haywood Jr., or “OJ” (Daniel Kaluuya) has recently taken over the business from his father Otis Senior (Keith David), who was killed in a freak accident some six months prior when pieces of metal fell from the sky, supposedly from a plane. The horse that was being trained under the path of the inexplicable event had a key embedded in its flank, while Otis Senior somehow ended up with a nickel embedded in his brain through his eye. OJ inherited the gift of horse training from his father but lacks the elder man’s interpersonal abilities on the micro and macro levels, being unable to work a crowd as his father did but also failing to communicate with others on a day-to-day level without a high dose of awkwardness. All the social skills went to his younger sister, Emerald “Em” (Keke Palmer), a fast-talking, wise-cracking whirlwind who never stops hustling, much to OJ’s chagrin. We see this from one of the film’s earliest scenes, in which OJ begins to recite the rote speech that was no doubt his father’s, about their family’s descent from the Bahamian jockey who appeared in Horse in Motion, what is generally considered to be the first motion picture, and how they are keeping that tradition alive by continuing to train horses for film. OJ is hesitant, stumbling over his words, until Em appears and delivers the spiel with style and aplomb. When she wanders off during the actual screen test and the movie crew fails to heed OJ, causing the horse to act out in a way that costs them the job, we have the perfect vision of how the two siblings function as a team, two halves of a whole that only works when they are together. The two other major players in the film are Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who experienced a harrowing and traumatic tragedy on the set of a gimmick 90s sitcom, and Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), a peroxide-highlighted electronics store employee who gets wrapped up in the Haywoods’ lives after he becomes suspicious while installing cameras and other monitoring equipment at their ranch. 

Why do they need that monitoring equipment? Why, because OJ and Em are dealing with a UFO, of course. And if they can get footage of it, then they’ll be financially set, meaning that OJ will no longer have to sell off the horses from the ranch to remain solvent. 

Jordan Peele’s films are always thematically rich, and manage to exist in that space where they remain fascinating, captivating, and utterly watchable. Many films manage to mostly stay the course and we can forgive their slight imbalances if they manage to avoid tipping too far to one side (Glass Onion comes to mind—it gets close at points but never tilts so much that it starts to take on water), and others can lean too far over one side and become (in the words of Lindsay Ellis) “Oops, all allegory.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of things that Nope could be said to be “about,” or which present rich veins of interpretable ore to be hammered out and turned into gold by better writers than I am. So with that said, I want to talk about the three themes that are my favorites in Nope: the illusory nature of totems, the illusory nature of memory, and the illusory nature of media.

There are a number of totemic items present throughout the story: the Monopoly pieces that the crew sets out when planning to get the shot of the alien creature they have nicknamed Jean Jacket, after a horse that was supposed to have been Em’s ninth birthday gift but which ended up being selected for a movie; the VHS tape of her father’s spiel that Em watches the night that Jean Jacket vomits viscera all over the Haywood farmhouse; the giant balloon version of Jupe that suffers the same fate as the real one. Even the original Jean Jacket himself, in his absence, represents something about Em, her brother, and the fickle nature and absurd reality of the film industry. But the two biggest ones belong to OJ and Jupe. For the former, it’s the coin that improbably killed his father. For the latter, the impossible is represented in something equally quotidian and mundane that was given significance because of circumstance: a shoe. At one point in the film, OJ asks Em if there is a term for a “bad miracle,” referencing the way that his life has changed as a result of witnessing an extra-terrestrial, but this also plays into Jupe’s backstory, in which he was the ostensible human lead in Gordy’s Home, the aforementioned TGIF-style sitcom in which the gimmick was that a family had adopted a chimpanzee. During the filming of an episode of the show’s second season, one of the chimps playing Gordy was started by the popping of an on-set balloon and went on a violent rampage, killing several people and maiming the actress playing Jupe’s older sister, sparing only Jupe himself, who was transfixed throughout the attack on the unusual sight of a shoe standing straight up on its heel. Even as an adult, he keeps this same show in his ad hoc museum of Gordy’s Home memorabilia, enshrined in a place of honor. What differentiates the two men is that OJ ultimately realizes that the nickel that he’s pinned to his wall in memoriam of his father isn’t important, not really; it may have struck the killing blow but he recognizes that it is, in essence, a real life MacGuffin, with no inherent import in and of itself. Jupe continues to attribute significance to the show insofar as he comes to see himself as the recipient of some supernatural, if not necessarily divine, intervention. Late in the film, OJ notes that the alien Jean Jacket isn’t sticking around because doing so is in its nature, but because Jupe thought that he could tame the alien because his belief in his infallibility as some kind of animal whisperer, as made manifest by the impossibility of the self-stabilizing shoe, and he turned out to be very, very wrong. The power of totems is an illusion; it’s just people projecting their magical thinking onto objects in the same way that we often anthropomorphize nature, again to our detriment when it comes to predators. 

For Jupe, part and parcel of this is the nature of his memories. When asked about the incident by Em, Jupe doesn’t recount any honest details to her: not his fear, not the sickening sound of flesh being struck by simian fists, not the panic in the voice of his TV father as he attempted to escape the carnage. Instead, he recalls a Saturday Night Live sketch lampooning the event, except that he doesn’t even really describe the sketch and how it plays out (other than the small detail that Sketch!Gordy panics at mention of the jungle, not the real cause of his outburst), only recounting which cast member played whom and praising Chris Kattan’s performance as Gordy without any specifics other than that Kattan was “undeniable” and “eating it up, crushing it, devouring every moment.” The real memory, as we see it play out, is visceral and full of intricate details, down to the particular transparency of the tablecloth on the on-set dining table that obscured Jupe’s eyes from Gordy, foreshadowing that Jean Jacket’s territorial attacks are only against things that it perceives as looking at it. We know that this event still haunts Jupe and that, like a lot of traumatic memories, the specificity of the day remains vivid and sharp in his mind, interjecting itself into his thoughts when he’s preparing for a performance at the ranch, intrusive. Jupe has taken this memory and buried it under layers of media interpretation and interpolation and changed its quintessential form, just as he has foundationally changed the “meaning” of the shoe. Jupe makes his living off of nostalgia and in so doing never leaves the past behind, and he has supplanted his own memories with, for all intents and purposes, a movie; OJ, meanwhile, is preoccupied with the future and finding ways to keep Haywood open, and Em is focused on the present, with her hustles both professional and romantic. As such, we spend much less time in full flashbacks for the Haywoods; though they are standing in the shadow of Otis Senior and talk about him, each character only gets one actual visual representation of their memories, and it’s open to interpretation how much of each is accurate. OJ’s takes the form of a dream in which his father, speaking of one of the horses, says “I guess some animals ain’t fit to be trained,” a statement which perfectly slots into OJ’s current situation and provides a key moment of insight/realization about the nature of Jean Jacket, in a manner perhaps too apropos for the elder Hayworth to have actually said it and instead synthesized from OJ’s real memories through that ephemeral nature of dreams. Prior to this, on her first night back at the farmhouse, Em recounts the days leading up to her ninth birthday and looking down from the window to see the two generations of Otises training the namesake Jean Jacket, speaking with a soft bitterness about how Otis Senior had given up her promised horse because of “some Western.” This memory, too, is flawed: OJ corrects her by saying that it was actually Scorpion King that the horse had been picked for, and that the film had ended up using camels instead. Memory can be a mirage as much as it can be a mirror, and it’s ultimately imperfect. 

At its peak, though, that’s the biggest theme of Nope: the distortion of reality via the camera lens. One of my favorite lyrics from one of my favorite bands comes from the opening of Typhoon’s track “Young Fathers,” which is “I was born in September / And like everything else I can’t remember / I’ve replaced it with scenes from a film.” Jupe has done this almost literally, but Nope is also about the nature of how the proliferation of media has irrevocably changed our lives. There’s a really fun mixture here of media both real—Scorpion King, The Horse in Motion, Saturday Night Live—and imagined—Gordy’s Home, Six Guns, a nonexistent SNL sketch—which plays with the audience’s perception. After all, if you sort of half remember the SNL sketch in which Kattan plays the monkey man Mr. Peepers, then it doesn’t seem impossible that there was a similar sketch about Kattan playing Gordy. Theoretically, the camera lens should offer us perfect, objective truth, should record reality as it is without the wrinkles and imperfections that our memories include because of distance from events and the horizons of our experience, but that’s not what actually happens, because media is just as edited as our memories are, meaning that they are just as flawed in their ability to capture an inarguable “reality.” In few places is this more apparent than in media parasite organization TMZ, which becomes a literal part of this film when one of their employees appears at Haywood Ranch right in the middle of the Haywood crew’s big push to capture Jean Jacket on film, disrupting the entire operation while begging OJ with his dying breath to get pictures of the entity. This man values the money shot over his own life, and he pays dearly for it. The great irony is that nothing is “real” until it’s captured on film, but even that supposed “truth” is still subject to the edit; if nothing is real until we film it, but film is inherently not true either, then is there even such a thing? Every character in this movie navigates their life in some way informed by mass media: cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) intones a dead-serious rendition of the pop novelty song “One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying Purple People Eater” at the Haywoods’ dinner table; Angel singsongs the famous “They’re here” line from Poltergeist when Jean Jacket appears; the course of Em’s life was changed in a small way by Scorpion King, and Jupe’s was altered on a mass scale by Gordy’s Home. It’s just as much a force in everyone’s lives as Jean Jacket itself. 

There’s still more onion to peel back here, but it’s not for me to take up all that space. I could go on and on about how it’s a fascinating choice that almost no character is called by their real name but by a nickname or derivation thereof (even Holst is introduced offscreen as “Ants”), or about the performances (Kaluuya really embodies a specific kind of eyes-averting blue-collar humility that was familiar and beautiful to me, while Palmer is a natural at everything, it seems), or all the little bits of foreshadowing, but I think that’s enough for today. This review is long overdue, but if you’ve for some reason avoided seeing Nope up to this point, then there’s no time like the present. Giddy up. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

4 thoughts on “Nope (2022)

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