Director: Jordan Peele (USA). Year of Release: 2022
Nope opens with a Biblical quote which lays a gauntlet down: “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.” (Nahum 3:6). As the opening scene runs, we hear radio reports of a female hiker who has gone missing. We hear and later see footage from a 1990s sitcom Gordy’s House. Cute teens line up to offer birthday presents to Gordy the chimp. This is followed by sounds of chaos and violence and a close up of some bloody sneakers.
Cut to: a pair of Black animal wranglers – Otis Senior (Pops) and Otis Junior (OJ) are talking about strange happenings which are disturbing their horses. Keys and coins fall from the skies, and one of the coins hits Otis Senior in the eye. He is taken to hospital, where he eventually dies. Official reports say that the debris has come from an aeroplane, but that doesn’t make sense. Otis Junior becomes convinced that extraterrestrial powers are at play.
Cut to: some expensive Hollywood advertising studio, where OJ is looking after a horse, waiting for his more extrovert sister Em to do her shtick. The advertising execs are already unhappy that Otis Senior is not there – at least he knew what he was doing. OJ is too surly for them, and Em too eager to please. Besides which, she is characteristically late. When an on-stage incident causes a horse to bolt, OJ and Emma’s company Haywood Hollywood Horses loses the gig.
The Haywood farm is experiencing unaccountable power outages, confirming OJ’s belief that aliens are behind it. He and Em are desperate to capture what they call the “Oprah shot”, unambiguous film footage that can put them on a big tv programme and generate serious money. With the help of Angel, a worker at the local hardware store, they set up security cameras and aim them up at the skies. They contact maverick film director Antlers Holst to ask if he can help film the aliens.
Meanwhile they come into contact with Ricky “Jupe” Park, a Chinese-American former child actor who was the star of Gordy’s House. We learn that the programme got decommissioned during its second series after the lead actor – a chimpanzee – attacked and killed some of the cast. Jupe is now running a rodeo down the road called Jupiter’s Claim, and in his back room he has a shrine to his former career. Some Dutch tourists once paid him good money to spend the night there.
Nope is the sort of film that I often hate – very self-reflective, references to other films that normal people haven’t seen, and often wilfully opaque. It almost dares you to guess what it’s about. And yet, it is carried out with such a sense of fun, that I just went with it. The acting and cinematography are superb of course, but there was something more than this. Maybe it was the winked acknowledgement that although this is a pile of horseshit, everyone involved is fully aware of this.
I’m still trying to decide how relevant and/or interesting it is that Nope adopts 2 of the genres most favoured by Cold War cinema – Westerns and UFO movies. As described in Peter Biskind’s superb book Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, both genres could set up a clear Us and Them dynamic between Cowboys and Indians, Earth people and aliens, against which a proxy war between the USA and USSR was fought out on screen.
And yet this analogy doesn’t exactly work for Nope. There are no Indians to provide an enemy/misunderstood Other (delete according to how progressive your Western is), and the “Us” on offer is much more multi-cultural than is visible in most Westerns (most, but not all. One exception to the White Western was Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher, a poster for which appears in the background of several of Nope’s scenes).
The UFO part of the film does set up an unknown “Other” in contrast to the main characters. According to the usual template, this Other can be benign or threatening, but its role is to unite “Us” (also the title of director Jordan Peele’s previous film) against an outside “Them”. But who are the “Us” in Nope? What unites 2 Black animal wranglers, a Chinese-American former child star, a Latino security technician and a crazy film director? And who is excluded from this group?
To be honest, I think the worst reaction to Nope is to overthink things. The critics who have had the most problems with Nope are those who have tried too hard to find some great metaphor. Does the UFO represent the irresistible lure of the search for stardom? Or maybe the breakdown of race relations in the modern USA? (this comparison is obligatory in all Jordan Peele films). Does the maltreatment of chimps, horses and extraterrestrials show the inhumanity of man?
After considerable thought, I’m not really sure what it’s all “supposed” to mean, nor that this really matters. Can’t we just sit back and enjoy the film? Nope is a very enjoyable, good looking and well-acted film if you stop thinking too hard. It is also very funny. And yes, I realise that I’ve now contradicted myself by searching for an inner truth and coming to the conclusion that it’s just a bloody film. But sometimes that just the path you have to take.