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Jordan Peele subverts expectations (again) with 'Nope'

Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Brandon Perea in <em>Nope.</em>
Universal Studios
Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Brandon Perea in Nope.

When the first trailer for Nope dropped, viewers almost immediately swarmed social media trying to interpret the opaque montage of shots – shots which revealed virtually nothing about the plot of the movie. This is partially of Jordan Peele's own doing, because his first two feature films as a writer-director, Get Out and Us, set up high expectations for twisty, multilayered social commentary by way of popcorn thrills. Even more so it's a product of the current cultural landscape, where seemingly every big movie or TV series is laden with twists and Easter eggs and spoiler-y cameos, lending itself to fervent Reddit threads breaking down the creator's underlying meaning.

Peele surely knows by now what audiences anticipate from him and other filmmakers like him, which is probably why – once again – he's managed to subvert our expectations. Nope isn't so much a plot-twisty experience to be meticulously deconstructed as it is a consistently surprising one. It's a journey that's less social commentary-forward than its predecessors, yet still stacked with plenty of meaning to tease out after you've left the theater.

First and foremost, he wants us to be in awe. And on that front, he doesn't disappoint.

The film opens by quoting a Bible verse from the book of Nahum: "I will cast abominable filth at you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle," followed by a quiet, eerie scene involving an animal that's best left unsaid for first-time viewers; the better to creep you out in the moment. Eventually, Nope drops us into the world of OJ and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer), a pair of siblings dealing with the loss of their father Otis, Sr. (Keith David) while trying to maintain the family business. Haywood Hollywood Horses is their company, a horse wrangling outfit that's worked with TV and film productions for years and is based in the small California desert valley town of Agua Dulce.

Mysterious events and sightings from above begin to occur on the family's ranch, and the hard-hustling Emerald sees an opportunity to make some extra cash by getting the perfect shot of a UFO to sell online. Soon, she and OJ have tricked their land out with camera gear with the help of Angel (Brandon Perea), a tech salesman and quirky supernatural enthusiast who has a plethora of time on his hands. (His actress girlfriend just broke up with him, much to his dismay.) But the UFO poses more of a threat than they initially realize, and soon the three find themselves on the offensive and enlist the help of an old-school filmmaker – the kind who still shoots on actual film – played by Michael Wincott.

True to Peele's sensibilities, Nope seems to be borrowing from a plethora of cinematic references: Spielberg (particularly Jaws and E.T.), M. Night Shyamalan (Signs), and Alien, just to name a few. Kaluuya plays OJ almost like the strong, silent cowboy heroes of Old Hollywood westerns, a man of few words unless the occasion truly calls for it, and the kind of guy who keeps his feelings close to the vest. This contrasts nicely with Palmer's fast-talking, looser Emerald; she's the firecracker in this powder keg, injecting energy, wit, and comedic relief into a character whose ideas on how to keep the family's legacy alive run up against her brother's intentions.

As the movie trots along, the plot is always a couple steps ahead of where the mind may go, and – at least upon first viewing – not all of the threads necessarily hold together if you think about them for too long. (For instance, a storyline involving Steven Yeun as an amusement park owner and former child star is very effective in echoing the movie's themes, but could also have been more developed.) I also suspect that, like Us, this will stir up a lot of debate about what message Peele might be trying to impart to his audiences, though I'd argue there's less there there to debate over in this case. (On the other hand, maybe that in itself is something to ponder.)

This is not to say Nope is slight; with this movie, he's contributing a new entry to the rich history of Black westerns (the Sidney Poitier-directed Buck and the Preacher is visually referenced, for one) and tapping into themes about a cultural obsession with taming nature and profiting off of pageantry. It's also significant to note how Peele playfully speaks to Black audiences and their frequent responses to horror movies through the clever title and OJ and Emerald's actions – like Regina Hall's ever-skeptical Brenda in the Scary Movie franchise, these characters are wary and smart about situations that are obviously ominous. "Nope" isn't just a phrase, it's a way of survival.

But the aims strongly prioritize thrills and mood-setting. Aesthetically, this is his most ambitious feature yet, with intensely crafted action sequences, breathtaking visuals courtesy of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and a superbly immersive sound design by Johnnie Burn. Peele seems to be having more fun with his audience than ever before as a feature filmmaker, and in turn, it makes for a fun watch.

In an era of sequels, prequels, reboots, and franchises-within-franchises, it's refreshing to see a filmmaker working in this mode, evoking familiarity while keeping viewers on their toes. Nope has only solidified my anticipation for anything and everything Peele does next.

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Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.