The difference between Jordan Peele’s Us and his earlier, Oscar-winning Get Out was the same one elucidated by Stephen King in Misery: the effortless pleasure of Having an Idea versus the more laborious gruntwork of Trying to Have One. Get Out was narratively simple and intellectually spacious: Transitioning seamlessly from sketch comedy to sociological horror, Peele methodically stripped away genre clichés to arrive at a series of dark epiphanies about race, identity, and provocatively juxtaposed modes of imprisonment. Us, by contrast, was intricately layered, probably to a fault. Its epic pileup of symbols, gimmicks, and money shots was, in the end, too much of a good thing. The croaking, accusatory cadences in Lupita Nyong’o’s stellar dual performance suggested a filmmaker finding his voice but maybe saying less than he wanted to. Having proved he could make a very good movie, Peele got hung up trying to make an even better one; there was a palpable residue of anxiety, as if the director were sweating his own premature canonization.
In Peele’s new thriller, Nope, the ratio of inspiration to perspiration is more balanced, and the directorial flexing is more impressive. Shot in IMAX by the gifted Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, on loan from Christopher Nolan and the James Bond franchise, Peele’s third feature is a hugely scaled piece of work boasting the kind of swooping, God’s-eye camerawork available only to brand-name auteurs. Nope has a broader, more spectacular scope than either of its predecessors, and more obviously crowd-pleasing elements, as well. Whether or not Peele is “The New Hitchcock”—an outrageous comparison he humorously downplayed in 2019 by referring to the Master of Suspense as a “creep”—he’s cultivating a similarly sinister sense of showmanship. Each sequence has been carefully and effectively designed to make viewers either laugh, wince, or gleefully suspend their own disbelief.
As usual, Peele isn’t above a few cheap, mechanical jolts. But in accordance with the project’s mandate for widescreen grandeur, he also manages some intensely sustained moments of contemplation—scenes in which we’re not sure what we’re looking at, or why. There’s even a little bit of genuine awe, the same cosmic, wide-eyed wonder immortalized in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is superficially (and deceptively) Nope’s most obvious Spielbergian reference point.
Amid it all remains the sense that Peele is anxiously looking over his own shoulder. In telling the story of a pair of brother-sister horse trainers trying to photograph an elusive—and apparently extra-terrestrial—object hovering in the sky over the lunaresque expanse of their Agua Dulce ranch, the director is basically allegorizing his own elaborate, big-studio practice: filmmaking as a military-style operation, with a combination of personal and mercenary stakes. “Since the moment pictures could move, we’ve had skin in the game,” crows Keke Palmer’s Emerald Haywood as part of her spiel before a commercial shoot. She’s hinting that her clan’s hardy, below-the-line efforts as stuntmen and animal wranglers—a multigenerational business dubbed “Haywood’s Hollywood Horses”—are worthy of remembrance; after noting that Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering 19th century moving-image study of a galloping horse and rider featured an African American jockey, she’s met with crickets.
Without putting too fine a point on it, Peele is calling attention to the racial inequities of Hollywood history, as well as interrogating his own triumphant status as one of the industry’s reigning African American cinematic creators, gifted with the ability to make movies about anything he wants. As long as his films keep turning a profit, the onus will be on audiences (and executives) to meet him halfway. With this in mind, in order to really enjoy Nope as something more than a thrill ride, you have to buy that Em and her older brother OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) have enough of a stake in cinematic image-making that they’re willing to risk their skin instead of simply repeating the movie’s sly, count-me-out title and walking away. Their elaborate amateur movie-making project, which involves installing surveillance cameras to watch the skies around their property, is the gesture of people who are all in, and marks them as thinly disguised, and ultimately righteous, stand-ins for their creator.
The main conceptual joke of Nope, which takes a while to come into focus after a series of shiverily pleasurable B-movie fake-outs (including a doozy affectionately and sarcastically indebted to M. Night Shyamalan) is about the sacrifices (and drudgery) that go into getting the proverbial #OnePerfectShot. More specifically, it’s a study about how hard it is to persuasively capture a close encounter of the first kind, and in a way that viewers will think is real. That Peele makes it harder than expected to actually see the big, circular thing menacing the Haywoods is perfectly in keeping with the running motif of vision and perspective; the death of a minor character early on offers a diabolical play on the old cliché about eyes being the window to the soul.
There’s another intersecting artistic metaphor on offer here, however, and it’s considerably wilder. Literally so: Following Get Out’s tragically slain deer and Us’ mysteriously multiplying rabbits, the director adds to his ongoing animal menagerie with a cold open featuring a blood-streaked, intently staring chimpanzee, a terrifying yet oddly touching figure who silently meets and returns our gaze with an ambiguous, unsettling mix of recognition and rage. The monkey business of Nope’s prologue is a freaky, enigmatic fragment that fits into the film’s larger cryptozoological puzzle in ways that are both narratively satisfying and thematically apt. In short: Whether you’re dealing with trained apes or ancient aliens, humility in the face of something potentially dangerous or unpredictable is surely preferable to hubris. Always clever with his pop music cues—remember the killer use of Luniz in Us—Peele cinches this cautionary, handle-with-care subtext with a snatch of Canadian prog-rocker Gowan’s ’80s hit “(You’re a) Strange Animal,” in which the singer walks the tightrope between anthropology, infatuation, and obsession: “Well they say I should approach you with caution / But not to let you be aware of my fear. … / You’re a strange animal, I’ve got to follow.”
The character with Gowan on his playlist is played by Steven Yeun, smartly cast as a former ’90s child star nursing memories of that chimp-related, on-set trauma and trying to transcend his guilt through his own form of show business make-believe. (Yeun’s beatific handsomeness is always better served by disturbed characters; see also his award-worthy work in Burning.) The common thread weaving together Nope’s two main narrative strands—three if you count the arc of the acerbic veteran cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who begrudgingly agrees to help the Haywoods only to commit fully the project—is the idea of catharsis through entertainment, which Peele doesn’t so much advocate as examine.
It’s a thin line between profundity and pretentiousness, and by framing Nope with a Bible verse disparaging the voyeurism and exploitation of popular culture—“I will pelt you with filth, treat you with contempt, and make you a spectacle”—Peele perhaps falls on the wrong side of that boundary. Still, there’s something admirable about a director who thinks enough of his audience to confront (and even confuse) them instead of just cranking out virtuoso set pieces.
About those set pieces, one passage, soundtracked to another ’80s Canadian radio staple courtesy of Ray-Bans advocate Corey Hart, is probably the tensest, funniest, and grossest thing that Peele has ever directed, drenched in torrential downpour (and other fluids) and steeped in pit-of-your-stomach dread. (The audience I saw the film with went nuts for it.) He also gets very carefully modulated performances out of Kaluuya and Palmer, whose characters are behavioral opposites—he’s sullen and withdrawn; she’s nervy and extroverted—but feel plausibly like they came from the same stock. At this point in his career, Peele’s greatest weakness remains his handling of exposition, which nearly sunk Us under the weight of its own convoluted, counterintuitive mythology. This time, he doesn’t do quite enough with OJ and Em’s backstories, but the actors fill in the blanks. In particular, Nope is a showcase for Palmer, who’s got just the right alert, skeptical presence for a horror movie that slow-plays its revelations. By the time she’s convinced something uncanny is going on, so are we. Her terror is hilarious—and contagious.
To return to the idea that Nope is being sold as a Close Encounters riff, the difference between Spielberg in 1977 and Peele in 2022 is that the former was still in the process of reinventing multiplex spectacle in his own image. Peele, through no real fault of his own, is fated to work as a post-millennial postmodernist for whom nothing—no sci-fi trope, no horror-movie gross-out, no rug-pulling structural twist—is truly new under the sun. Which is ultimately why Nope—with its relentless, ambient, pressurized tension—feels a lot closer to the primal fears of Jaws. The tetchy, affectionate interplay between the characters of Nope seems to purposefully conjure memories of the men who captained the Orca; in this neo-Spielbergian schema, Holst is absolutely a modern incarnation of Robert Shaw’s quixotic shark hunter Quint, wielding a hand-cranked camera in place of a harpoon.
Jaws is one of the greatest movies of its era, and such praise is considerably too lofty for Nope—just ask Peele himself. He’s too smart—and too much of a genre aficionado—to actively throw his own name into the ring alongside the all-timers. But at the same time, the inflated dimensions of Nope and the increasingly eccentric nature of its spectacle suggest that he’s working at least partially with posterity in mind. When Em urges her brother to flee a dicey situation by screaming “run, OJ, run,” we’re back in the smirking satirical territory of Key & Peele.
But when Peele frames a horse running at top speed through the wooden slats of a stable in a visual imitation of an old-school kinetoscope, he’s clearly going for something larger. If his reach slightly exceeds his grasp, it’s only because he’s trying to get his mitts on something so gargantuan. His ambition is showing, but his hands are steady.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.