I don’t really know anything about writer-director Jordan Peele’s process when he crafts a new film, but I like to imagine that he starts with the first story idea that comes to mind and then pushes himself — pointedly and with urgency — to come up with a way to tell it differently that his first instinct. By that, I don’t mean tinkering with odd techniques, scrambling chronology, or other structural tomfoolery, though such innovations are often slyly present in the finished product. Instead, he seems to take whatever tale he’s made and turns it inside out, guts it, and stuffs it with entirely new and unexpected innards. Like no one else currently making genre-shaped films, Peele makes the familiar jarringly new. Even when what he’s raised rears outside of Peele’s ability to completely wrangle it, the endeavor is nothing less than thrilling to watch.
Nope, Peele’s third feature, centers on the Haywood siblings, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer). They’re struggling to maintain the business previously run by their now-deceased father (Keith David), providing trained horses for Hollywood production. It’s worth noting that Emerald’s attention to the task wavers. OJ has been replenishing the dwindling coffers by selling steeds to the nearby wild-west theme park, run by former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen), a strategic choice that’s a point of contention between brother and sister. And that’s before unsettling suspicions arise about what Ricky needs with the steady supply of horses.
Peele plays his narrative cards like a master. He’s so skillful, in fact, that the best comparison might be Steven Spielberg at his most rascally. Peele builds a world on screen, with a history and a moral compass, and makes the switchback curves within it feel entirely logical, like the only way the pavement could have possibly been laid. As with both Get Out and Us, sharing too much detail is an act of unkindness. It’s not that surprise is a necessary element for the success of the film. Instead, revelation is simply part of Peele’s creative panache. Undercutting it in any way is a needless violation of the pact between filmmaker and audience.
What can be typed is this: Peele’s unique ability to meld social commentary with bodacious, energetic storytelling remains fully intact, as does the tendency towards thematic theses that pile up on one another like cordwood dropping off an accelerated conveyor belt. In an era of studio filmmaking dulled by calculation, Nope has almost too much going on, inviting speculation about artistic intent that could weary the most ardent film nerd. That shortcoming manifests most clearly in the last act, which spins so many wobbling plates that the sound of crashing china threatens to drown out everything that’s come before. And what’s come before is often so very good, whether the highlight is Peele’s exemplary visual sense, his strange ability to leverage the hoariest bygone pop cultural artifacts into deeply unsettling plot points, or the truly dazzling turn by Palmer, the sort of performance for which the term star-making was coined.
Nope is the messiest of Peele’s films so far. Weirdly, it might simultaneously be the most exciting expression of his talent yet. In every way, Nope suggests that the sky itself isn’t even a limit.