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We Need to Talk About Gordy

The appearance of a rampaging chimpanzee in ‘Nope’ might seem extraneous—but it’s actually a key to understanding the movie

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Spoiler warning

It takes a grand imagination to think up a movie monster that’s never been seen before—and an even grander one to score your biggest scares without it. Jordan Peele does both in Nope. In a movie about a carnivorous amoeba of the sky, the scene that will truly leave audiences petrified and shaken is the one featuring a much more ordinary monster. We’re talking, of course, about Gordy the chimp.

In the world of Nope, Gordy’s bloody rampage is the stuff of showbiz legend. We learn about it from one of the survivors, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who as an adult runs a kitschy Old West theme park town called Jupiter’s Claim. Jupe is best remembered for his stint on a popular, short-lived ’90s sitcom called Gordy’s Home! that was promptly canceled after its simian star snapped and wreaked what Jupe describes, with an eerie detachment, as “six and a half minutes of havoc.”

Peele may have drawn inspiration for this subplot from a real-life incident that made international headlines: the horrific mauling of a woman in 2009 by a chimpanzee with a résumé of TV gigs. Either way, the writer-director grasps the car-crash fascination of these kinds of public tragedies, built on a refusal to acknowledge the potential consequences of working with wild animals. He actually opens Nope with a quick glimpse of the carnage—a shot of Gordy wandering the television set he’s trashed, covered in blood. This flash of implied violence lends the film an immediate jolt of danger, and Peele keeps teasing the full scene with shots of the young Jupe (Jacob Kim) cowering under a table as Gordy stalks the set. (Building the incident up in our minds before showing it to us is one of several choices that recalls the ingenious suspense of Jaws.)

It’s around the midway mark of Nope that Peele finally grants a sustained flashback to the attack, a master class miniature horror movie within the movie. Most of the scene unfolds from Jupe’s limited perspective, with Peele locking the camera tight and low to enhance the sense of helplessness. Like the boy, all we can do is bear stunned, frozen witness as Gordy (played through motion-capture by Terry Notary, to avoid the kind of on-set incident that’s being dramatized) brutalizes his castmates. That we don’t actually see him bash in and then devour a preteen girl’s face—an act of unspeakable violence that Peele strategically obscures through blocking—doesn’t make it any less horrifying. If anything, the version implanted in our heads through implication and cruelly evocative sound design might be even worse.

Peele zeroes in on the kind of absurd details that would surely linger forever in Jupe’s mind; the actual opening shot, before Gordy stumbles into frame, is of a single abandoned shoe, impossibly balanced upright on the mostly empty soundstage, decorated with a lone drop of blood. There’s some pitch-black comedy to these stunning few minutes, all of it related to the folly of confusing a chimp for an actor who can be controlled or reasoned with. Gordy, all dressed up with his little birthday hat, strikes a nightmarishly absurd figure—the very picture of failed domestication. It’s notable that both of the actors who we see him savage try to plead with him by his fictional name. They still see a sitcom character, even as he bashes them into pulp.

The scene is more than an inspired detour, though. While its inclusion in Nope might at first seem extraneous, the stand-alone exercise in grisly suspense ties into the whole intellectual architecture of the movie. Nearly as disturbing as the actual flashback is the way the adult Jupe talks about it earlier in the movie—a scene that darkens significantly in retrospect. As Peele introduces him, Jupe is a celebrity has-been who’s been dining out on this one horrible thing that happened to him, cashing in on his memories and feeding a ghoulish public obsession with them via a shrine to his time on Gordy’s Home (including that lost shoe, now encased behind glass). Like Dieter Dengler, the former Navy pilot and POW escapee at the center of two Werner Herzog movies, he’s divorced himself almost entirely from the defining trauma of his life, converting it into a rehearsed anecdote.

In fact, Jupe’s dissociation from the event is so extreme that he discusses it only through the lens of a Saturday Night Live sketch about it. “They nailed it better than I ever could,” he says, before launching into some unsettlingly funny praise—a brilliantly written and performed monologue that feeds into Nope’s larger ideas about America’s habit of abstracting trauma and horror into spectacle. That the Gordy attack happens on a television set is pointed. There are a lot of awful things—among them the violence committed against Black Americans during the Civil Rights era and the events of September 11—that we as a country have watched unfold on live television. Nope suggests that the camera has become a filter through which we process these events: chewing them up and spitting them out, digesting what we can and expelling the rest, just like the film’s sentient flying saucer after a feeding frenzy.

And what is Jean Jacket, as our heroes come to call the alien beast, but a mirror image of Gordy, distorted through legend into something vaster and even more destructive? Jupe, like the producers of Gordy’s Home!, misunderstands the nature of the animal. Or, as OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) puts it, “He tried to tame a predator.” (The protagonists being horse wranglers with a deep respect for the animals they train is certainly not incidental.)

The dark fatalism of Jupe’s subplot is that it’s cyclical. Because he’s never truly dealt with his trauma—even as he’s turned it into his whole identity, a story to forever exploit—he’s doomed to repeat it. That’s the horrible power of his last scene out there in the desert, inadvertently drawing the monster in to feed on him, his family, his audience, his crew, and even his old costar, horrifically disfigured by Gordy but left alive just to be killed in some bizarre, supernatural replay of the incident. Is Peele tackling the death cycle of American violence, infinitely perpetuated by a nation unwilling to process atrocity as anything more than something to be gawked at?

Maybe. There’s a whole lot to chew on in Nope, a genre-bending thriller that also touches on such topics as legacy, hustle culture, the forgotten role of Black artists in Hollywood, and moviemaking as both a desperate grasp for the transcendent and a beast that will swallow you (and your labor and your dreams) whole. Whether all these ideas coherently blend together is debatable, though the film’s inability to be reduced to some single clear-cut thesis is what makes it a welcome alternative to the inherently solvable metaphoric horror that’s all the rage these days. No matter the larger interpretations, Nope has moments of terrible, visceral power. And none are more terrible or visceral—or meaningful—than those inescapable few minutes in Gordy’s house.

A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor based in Chicago. His work has appeared in such publications as The A.V. Club, Vulture, and Rolling Stone. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.