In Oscar winning Jordan Peele’s most self-reflexive film, spectacle takes centre stage in both the critique and, ironically, in the presentation as well.
NOPE is that most excellent of films – an entertaining piece that gets your pulse racing, while also a puzzle. There are levels and levels within levels within this motion picture.
The casual viewer can watch this film and leave thinking they well and truly got their money’s worth. The film is beautifully made, exquisitely written and performed by wonderful actors, with moments of comedy, suspense and even disquiet, amidst awe-inspiring, beautiful scenery. Beyond these aesthetically pleasing aspects, there is more going on under the hood! The thoughtful film goer is left with much to ponder.
As the film begins we see a verse from the Old Testament: “Nahum 3.6: I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” The Good News translation offers us “People will stare at you in horror” in the place of the last phrase, which adds a dimension relevant to this film.
Jordan Peele started his directorial career with the immensely well-received Get Out, a 2017 film that redefined the genre of horror films. NOPE is his third film and whilst there are some scary moments, it fits more into the category captured by TV series like The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror.
OJ (British actor Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (American singer and actor Keke Palmer) are siblings running a business that hires horses to film and TV productions. Emerald notes they have “skin in the game” because the first ever assembled film footage was of a black jockey riding a race horse. That was in 1878, the photographer was Eadweard Muybridge, and (in this fictional film) the jockey is their great-great, etc grandfather. The business has fallen on hard times after the death of their father, killed by falling debris from an aircraft, or… something else.
The quiet OJ and ebullient Emerald theorise something in the sky might be watching them on their dusty ranch and resolve to film it, with the help of local electronics wiz Angel and eccentric cinematographer Antlers Holst, played with menacing intensity by the wonderful Michael Wincott. At the same time, the siblings cross paths with former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), who is still dreaming of better days after a chimpanzee actor ran amuck on the set of his sitcom years before. Jupe needs a horse to use in his plan to exploit whatever is in the clouds above them for an arena spectacular at his roadside Western theme park down the road. From there, things get…weirder.
It’s best not to know too much more before you see this film because part of the joy is the way Peele unfolds the plot in little character moments and flashbacks into the pasts and presents of his characters. Apart from Holst, who is more of a symbolic metaphor about filmmaking itself, these are fully fleshed out individuals. Seemingly disconnected ideas are gradually drawn together to form a surprisingly nuanced whole exploring a range of themes, from the exploitation of animals, to art as commodity, to American race relations, and to the overarching theme of spectacle itself: why do we need it and what is the continuous exposure to the spectacular doing to us?
It’s ironic then that the film itself is a spectacle of the highest order, holding a mirror up to our Internet-focussed, celebrity-saturated lives. You find yourself complicit in the critique of what the director is saying as the story rolls out – I love it when that happens!! It’s a call to self-reflection, which is something the best films do.
That Peele achieves all this whilst simultaneously drawing on cinematic history to construct exhilarating shots and stylistic flourishes that recall luminaries, such as from Spielberg, Hitchcock and M. Night Shyamalan, is stunning.
Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema makes the sometimes desolate, sometimes fertile Agua Dulce (Spanish for “Sweet Water”) California landscape stunning. It’s easy to see here comparisons with the way Spielberg used Devil’s Tower in Wyoming for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – these are enjoyable. And, Emerald sliding her dirt bike to a stop on its side perfectly ape a similar moment in the wonderful Japanese anime Akira (1988), which had me winking at the screen, a smile on my face. These moments might slide by many, but to cinephiles they add a layer of delight to an already intricate Fabergé egg of a film.
If NOPE has a flaw, it’s that it tries to do too much. But Peele’s big ambitions cannot be faulted. If you want to see a film for a chuckle that you forget on the drive home, this might work. It can be experienced on that level and you’ll enjoy yourself. But if you love a film that entertains, while playing on your mind, leaving you discussing fervently for days afterwards, gradually unlocking its sophisticated riddles, say “yes” to NOPE! This is complex art soaked in popcorn thrills.
NOPE, rated M and directed by Jordan Peele is currently showing in cinemas.
Editor’s note: Interested in learning more about film, the Arts, and the many intersections with life and faith? Jonathan Sargeant teaches ‘THL256 Theology and the Arts’ at St Francis College. Contact Sheilagh, the College Registrar, on 07 5514 7403 or via firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.Jump to next article