Few other entertainers have had their professional reputation changed as quickly as Jordan Peele has in the past five years. Previously known mostly for his comedic acting, especially the beloved Key and Peele, Peele shocked the world with the 2017 horror film Get Out, for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Now, despite continuing as a comic actor, it is his directorial efforts that are his most highly anticipated outputs.
His latest, Nope, is shrouded in secrecy, a fact that becomes ironic after watching the film. OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) run Haywood Hollywood Horses, which supplies trained horses for film, TV, and commercial productions. After a strange incident involving their father (Keith David), the two start noticing unexplained electric blackouts and weird movements in the clouds above the rural gulch they call home.
Spurred on by former child actor Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), who owns a nearby Western-themed attraction, and Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), an electronics store salesperson who helps install cameras on their property, OJ and Emerald try to figure out exactly what’s happening in the sky and why their area has been chosen for torment.
Oddly, the film works best as a commentary on/homage to the art of filmmaking than as a stand-alone story. From references to one of the first moving images to a cheesy fictional ’90s sitcom to the Haywoods’ family business to the equipment characters use to try to capture the phenomenon, the intricacies of show business play a part in almost every aspect of the film.
However, if you like being freaked out and/or entertained by some freaky stuff, the film mostly leaves you wanting. It certainly has its moments, especially during flashbacks to a tragedy involving a trained chimpanzee, but as the film goes along it becomes apparent that Peele is more interested in retaining mystery than in answering any questions the audience might have.
In this way, the film feels kind of like many of the movies by M. Night Shyamalan, where the filmmaker has a crackerjack of a premise but doesn’t quite know how to deliver a satisfactory ending. Even when certain elements get revealed, those revelations only result in more questions. There are occasional clever flourishes, especially when filmmaker Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) enters the story, but most of the plot is head-scratchingly inexplicable.
Kaluuya is very restrained in his performance, surprisingly so given that he’s coming off a fiery, Oscar-winning role in Judas and the Black Messiah. He’s still a compelling presence, but his character never pops. Palmer is the exact opposite, serving as the film’s comic relief. The multi-hyphenate has her hands in many aspects of show business, but acting is proving to be her best option.
Nope is as well-made technically as Peele’s first two films, but he seems to be regressing as a storyteller. There will be many who will appreciate his nods to the history and minutiae of filmmaking, but the film is nowhere near as entertaining as people have come to expect from Peele.
Nope opens in theaters on July 22.