With only three feature films under his directorial belt, Jordan Peele is fast making a name for himself as one of the greatest living horror auteurs — recently, to his credit, Peele publicly told an ardent fan on Twitter to stand down after they implied he was already the greatest horror director of all time. Nope. (That's the only time I'll use this film's title cheekily like that, sorry.) Get Out and Us were both sophisticated horror/thrillers with as firm a grasp on tone and craft as they had on their narratives — they are both exceptionally difficult benchmarks to match, and unfortunately Peele hasn't managed to make a trifecta here. However, despite being a bit of a mess tonally and structurally, as well as almost totally devoid of real scares and heart, Nope is a visually exciting and admirably bold swing that only narrowly misses.
While this is arguably true of all films, Nope feels especially suited to being viewed with as little previous knowledge of its secrets as possible. (PSA: if you're considering seeing it, do NOT watch any of the latest round of promotional trailers. They are riddled with spoilers and will rob your experience of its surprises, which it dearly needs in order to work properly.) What you can safely go in knowing is that the action is almost exclusively centred on a remote Californian ranch, Haywood Hollywood Horses, run by Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and his father Otis Snr. (Keith David). They continue the work of their ancestors, who were the first Black stuntpeople in Hollywood, training horses for their use in films. One job doesn't go according to plan when Otis Jr.'s sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) arrives late to a shoot, which establishes an effective sibling relationship in which the film's stakes take root. Further down the same valley, Jupe (Steven Yeun) runs a peculiar kind of carnival of oddities that partly supports the work of the Haywood ranch — something feels slightly off, though. Both Otis and Jupe notice something Unidentified in the sky, but respond in very different ways.
Nope is considerably lighter on scares than Peele's previous two offerings, but it does contain a couple of deeply unsettling sequences that promised more than the film could ultimately sustain. The chilling opening prologue sets the stage for a number of flashbacks that exist to explain Jupe's motivations — the editing and sound design leading into the film's title card is a brilliantly effective tease. The film's strongest scene occurs reasonably early on when we are offered the first possible glimpse of Nope's antagonists making contact. It's a textbook example of 'what's unseen is almost always scarier than what's seen,' (although what's seen is pretty scary, too) and Michael Abel's exceptional score provides the perfect accompaniment of dread-ridden curiosity. This sequence is Peele at the top of his game, but was regrettably the last time he truly held my attention.
There's a midway turning point where a particular realisation creates a fork in the road that could have either led to fully-fledged creature-based horror or a rollicking action adventure. Peele chooses a hybrid that leans more to the latter and subsequently loses his grip on the reins he'd held so tightly until this point. From here on in until the final chapter, Nope is not unlike an Indiana Jones instalment, with a couple of new friends, surveillance nerd Angel (Brandon Perea) and acclaimed cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) coming along for the ride. In the final descent to the stunning climax, Nope's About-ness becomes less subtle — the more questions you have, the less willing it is to answer them. How audiences will react to the film's conclusion is entirely dependent on how willing they are to engage with its increasingly surreal imagery and defiance of traditional action/thriller tropes. While I ultimately found Nope's message more interesting than how it tried to say it, I'll always prefer an enigma to a neat, tidy bow. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for a 'metaphorror' at all.
Nope's biggest crime, though, is its lack of any real heart. Kaluuya and Palmer are a convincing sibling duo, but by the end of the film, I didn't feel like I'd been given any reason to care more about them than I did at the beginning. One crucial moment in particular was, I suspect, meant to bring on the waterworks, but I was left feeling cold. As visually appealing and well-paced as Nope may be, I was continually asking myself the same question — what is the point, and why should I care? Nope is by no means a bad film and certainly never boring, but does it live up to the hype generated by Peele's previous successes?
Nope is in cinemas now.