Film

Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope, harks back to Spielbergian spectacle as it explores the exploitation of pain. By Luke McCarthy.

Jordan Peele’s Nope

Daniel Kaluuya as OJ Haywood.
Daniel Kaluuya as OJ Haywood.
Credit: Universal Studios

The need to unpack and decode Jordan Peele’s films can obscure what makes his work as a genre stylist so appealing. Rife with loud, symbolic gesture and written to foreground themes as much as characters or coherence, his films feel like the work of an overexcited genre buff gleefully playing in the cinematic sandboxes of his youth.

In Nope, Peele’s latest genre blockbuster, we are treated to his vision of the UFO film. It feels less indebted to the horror influences of his early work than to the Spielbergian spectacle of films such as Jaws or War of the Worlds.

With the release of his debut film, Get Out, in 2017, it was clear that Peele – who had previously made a name for himself in the world of sketch comedy as the co-creator of Comedy Central’s Key & Peele – already had the makings of a great genre filmmaker. Using a Stepford Wives-like scenario to dig into the terror of an interracial meet-the-parents, its nightmarish and hilarious details translated the gnawing itch of racial microaggressions into an angry, gaping wound of horror spectacle.

Peele’s 2019 follow-up, Us, was a messier though equally rewarding affair. It told the story of the Wilson family, whose vacation home is invaded by people who somehow look and sound exactly like them. These violent and nefarious doubles are referred to as The Tethered. As a broad metaphor The Tethered were relatively easy to parse, speaking to a general fear of underclass resentment, but any specific allegory tended to break down in its specific details.

Though some chalked this up to a lack of focus, it seemed to me to speak to a growth in confidence on Peele’s part. The Tethered interrogated contradictions in class, race and identity in ways that were prickly and confounding. In many ways, Us played like a terrifying question mark.

Peele’s latest film, Nope, is similarly ambitious, though it lacks the thrilling, jagged edges of Us. Nope begins by introducing us to the Haywood siblings, Otis Jr (referred to throughout as OJ and played by Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer). The pair are responsible for Haywood Hollywood Horses, a business that trains and rents out horses for a variety of motion pictures. Why horses? The Haywoods claim that one of their ancestors was the real-life jockey who appeared in Eadweard Muybridge’s Horse in Motion. Made in 1878, Horse in Motion is one of the first attempts at creating a true “motion picture”.

Early on, Emerald asks why we know the name of one of the first white image-makers – Muybridge – but not the name of the first Black movie star, the jockey. The lead characters in Nope are descendants of one of cinema’s foundational acts of exploitation: the image of a Black man has come to represent nothing more than the genius of its white photographer.

One evening on their ranch, OJ witnesses what appears to be a UFO moving quickly through the clouds. After telling Emerald what he saw, she has an idea: the Haywoods will capture real-life footage of this UFO. Enlisting the help of an awkward but endearing Fry’s Electronics’ employee named Angel (Brandon Perea), the three set up an elaborate network of digital cameras.

The initial design for the UFO in Nope is deliciously retro, as if pulled from the annals of some of Peele’s favourite 1950s B movies. Seeing this UFO fly around the outskirts of Hollywood – with its clear blue skies and sun-scorched desert vistas in the day and the stark, deep-blue shades of the evening – is an impressive spectacle. Yet despite this inspired design, a haphazard quality to Peele’s images here makes them feel hurried and uninspired.

Enlisting cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema – regularly employed by director Christopher Nolan and known for his intuitive, naturalistic operating style – a lack of specificity in Nope’s image-making turns moments that should thrill us in their sense of discovery and awe into sequences that feel half-glimpsed and poorly covered.

This flatness is unfortunately present in the dramaturgy of the film itself. The narrative arc of OJ, Emerald and Angel is clearly heavy with symbolic import. The Haywood family, intimately entwined with one of cinema’s first acts of exploitation, now finds itself not merely the “forgotten subject” of an iconic image but its potential owner and author. Yet aside from its symbolic resonance, Nope’s human stakes are frustratingly hard to grasp.

Despite the initial, tantalising mystery of why this UFO appears to be violently abducting any living creature in its path, as each new sliver of information is revealed many scenes begin to feel merely functional. Characters act in ways that work for the metaphor but almost mechanically so. One begins to wonder why these characters are willing to risk their lives for a photo that, in the age of information overload, would probably read as little more than a blip on the internet’s impatient and increasingly fickle radar.

The exception to this sense of the mechanical is Ricky “Jupe” Park (played with verve by Steven Yeun). Jupe runs a Western-themed park called Jupiter’s Claim that’s right behind the Haywood ranch. He is a former child star whose career was cut short when, on the set of a sitcom titled Gordy’s Home, his loveable chimpanzee co-star suddenly turned violent and maimed three of Jupe’s fellow actors. This scene, shown in flashback, is thrillingly idiosyncratic, the image of a bloodied monkey on the brightly lit set terrifying and singular.

Years later, people still remain fascinated by the Gordy’s Home incident. Early in the film, Jupe tells OJ and Emerald of a now iconic Saturday Night Live sketch that parodied the traumatic event. As Jupe repeats over and over just how hilarious, how totally genius the sketch is, Peele continues to cut back to the incident, focusing on Jupe’s young, scared face as he witnesses the mauling of his co-stars.

The weight given to this scene suggests echoes of Peele’s own history in sketch comedy. Key & Peele was a series that wrung humour and absurdity from the realities of racial trauma. Taking it a step further, one might also look to the success of Get Out itself, which won Peele an Oscar for best original screenplay. In that film, Peele twisted this humour and absurdity into something more overtly gruesome. Despite the fact Get Out was truly horrific, it was also – like all great genre films – very entertaining.

This contradiction seems to be a central thematic conflict of Nope. Artists tend to draw from the dark wells of pain and trauma that they have inherited. To translate that pain into film, to turn it into the kind of crowd-pleasing blockbuster Peele finds himself continually drawn to, one must make that pain entertaining. To sell your trauma, you must also turn it into spectacle.

The cinematic image is not an objective one. In its pathological need to entertain, to thrill, to be sold to an audience, it must do violence to the reality of its subjects. Much like the cinema, Nope’s UFO is an object that eats up trauma and spits out anything fake. During its many violent abductions, we are forced to listen to the horrified screams of the people or animals that are swallowed by the craft.

It seems to be no coincidence that, in one of the film’s opening shots, we see Muybridge’s Horse in Motion superimposed over the night sky, the shot in question projected from within the alien craft itself. For Peele, the UFO seems to represent something foundational to the moving image.

In their quest to capture an image of this UFO, the Haywoods are in some way – just like Peele – attempting to tap into that spectacle, to tame this hungry, violent beast with their camera.

Cinema can be an exploitative, violent tool. Just like Nope’s UFO, the medium echoes with the pain of those it has destroyed in service of entertainment. Yet in spite of this, we continue to set up our camera, desperately trying to capture that next astonishing, impossible image. 

Nope is showing in cinemas throughout Australia.

ARTS DIARY

FESTIVAL WinterWild

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Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, August 11-21

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 6, 2022 as "Transforming trauma".

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Luke McCarthy is a filmmaker, writer and critic based in Naarm/Melbourne.

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