A great debut in Hollywood can be a blessing and a curse. Once you knock it out of the park like Jordan Peele did with “Get Out,” which captured the zeitgeist so perfectly within the framework of a greatly entertaining thriller, home runs become the standard, not the exception.
Now three movies in, Peele is in a bit of conundrum. Audiences want to feel the same way they did with “Get Out.” But “Us” didn’t quite do it. And now “ Nope,” which has been shrouded in secrecy, hyped as Peele’s most ambitious yet and had more than a few casual filmgoers not so casually calling it their “most anticipated of the year,” is arriving under impossible expectations which aren’t exactly lessened by the fact that it’s also Peele’s reunion with Daniel Kaluuya.
This isn’t just a Peele problem: Look at where Steven Soderbergh was a few films after “sex, lies and videotape.” The terrific debut has been a bane for many filmmakers over the year. With success comes some level of artistic freedom and trust but also pressure from a lot of outsiders who had nothing to do with what made the first film special, from the money people to the studio, to the theaters, to the audience. It can be a scary place for a filmmaker to exist — that is if the filmmaker cares about, or agrees with, the noise.
So it is fitting that Peele, who is living the dream and nightmare, made “Nope” about just that. Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play OJ and Em Haywood, a brother and sister who are descended from the unnamed, unidentified jockey riding the horse in Eadweard Muybridge’s “first-ever motion picture.” They have had, they say, skin in the game since the dawn of movies.
Drawing on this legacy, their father (Keith David) built a successful business as a Hollywood horse wrangler, which OJ attempts to carry on after his death. Em, though the more charismatic offspring, is less invested in the reality of maintaining ranch full of horses. She’s interested when the costumed cowboy Ricky (Steven Yeun), a former child sitcom actor with a theme park dude ranch down the road, offers to buy.
It is part UFO thriller, part commentary on Hollywood and partly about the insanity of filmmaking itself. There are self-conscious nods to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Signs.” Movie and pop culture references are everywhere, from the dialogue to the vintage crew hats and shirts everyone in town wears, like the bright orange “Scorpion King” sweatshirt OJ wears during the climactic showdown.
Peele sets an ominous mood immediately with a thread about a sitcom chimp who goes berserk. But his main set is in the rolling hills of Southern California’s inland ranches, which he and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”) rightfully cannot get enough of. It is fitting that the UFO only seems to appear at magic hour.
As in “Us,” “Nope” offers an exciting set-up and lots of big, disparate ideas about legacy and perfection, the pursuit of the impossible shot, mythologies and trauma. But, also as in “Us,” those elements don’t quite coalesce in satisfying or revelatory ways.
And yet, “Nope” is still an entertaining world to be in for two hours as OJ and Em try to document the wild, unexplainable spectacle in the clouds. They want to get “the Oprah shot” — the picture that will have a life outside of the dark corners of the internet. Some others join in the pursuit, like Brandon Perea’s Angel, an excitable electronics store employee, and the gravel-voiced Michael Wincott as a bored cinematographer who is tantalized by the idea of getting this once-in-a-lifetime shot using only analog technology.
Kaluuya’s OJ is a man of few words, one of which is the title of the film (used judiciously and to comedic relief). At times he seems to move at a glacial pace. His character is a bit of an enigma, but never boring. There is always something going on behind his penetrating eyes. Palmer’s Em, meanwhile, is a ball of energy and hustle and is equally compelling, though, again, slightly underdrawn.
“Nope” has also already had some critics throwing out less than favorable M. Night Shyamalan references. But it is full of vibrant life, too. It goes a long way in forgiving the reveal, which I’d even argue is beside the point. This is a film that offers a lot to chew on, which is more than most big summer spectacles can promise.
For some, anything short of The Sunken Place will be a let down. Thankfully, though, Peele isn’t afraid of the mess or the screams from the cloud above.
“Nope,” a Universal Pictures release in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “language throughout and some bloody, violent images.” Running time: 132 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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