Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Picture Perfect: NOPE

Writer-director Jordan Peele’s latest feature, Nope, starts with a scary bit of monkey business. The taping of a fictional 90’s sitcom co-starring a chimpanzee is violently interrupted by the sudden snapping of said animal costar. We see, mostly hidden behind the set’s blood-splattered sofa, the unmoving legs of a presumably mortally wounded cast member. The chimp sits, almost bewildered at its own actions, nudging the unmoving body. Then it turns and looks straight down the lens, as if seeing us, the audience, aware of our presence observing this awful spectacle. Wait, you might think at this point, isn’t this a movie advertised with the promise of a UFO? This chimp is, indeed, narratively superfluous to that core idea, but is also a key to the whole thing. This unsettling moment, brought back in a longer flashback late in the picture, has a connection to the backstory of a minor supporting character. But it’s also priming us to see this as a movie about people’s attempts to control the uncontrollable, in doomed attempts to capture the wilds of nature by taming it within the images we are used to.

As great as Peele’s previous pictures are—and Get Out and Us are certainly deserving of their critical hosannas and box office appeal—they do love plainly presenting, even openly declaiming, their allegorical intents. A thrill of Nope is its wide open spaces in look and story—big blue skies against a western backdrop, and plot and character and theme left with evocative implications. It’s a film of images about images. It’s rich in negative space, literal and figurative, it can fill in with sublime suspense and awe, and room to plant ideas and connections and deepening understandings to grow in the viewers’ minds. It’s a movie, then, about the futility of bringing the unimaginable down to earth through our capacity to document it. Peele is confident enough in his filmmaking, his concept, and his cast to let scenes play out with relaxed rhythms that slowly constrict into pinpoint tension, and for ideas to slowly amble until they’re suddenly crystal clear. It’s evident Peele is solidly one of those filmmakers with such a sure hand that, no matter where he takes us, we can trust he’ll make it worth our while.

The film’s grounding in the interplay between the moving image and lived experience is immediately apparent. Set on a ranch in rural California, it follows siblings (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) who’ve just inherited the property after the death of their Hollywood horse wrangler father (Keith David). They know about artifice, and the power of the camera, and respect for wild creatures, having inherited those, too. This is knowledge that should serve them well as they continue the family business. (They claim their ancestor was the unnamed jockey in the first moving picture experiments.) But what’s that in the clouds above? It sure looks like a UFO. The siblings know immediately they need to capture it on film. This self-reflexivity, a movie about moving images, is the engine for a thrilling genre piece—a work of process for how one goes about trying to get an elusive shot, and a work of horror-adjacent sci-fi enchanted by the tantalizing prospect of a big unknown lurking beyond the realm of the possible.

Peele frames many great shots of looking, staring, or averting one’s gaze, with the tall IMAX frames extending beyond characters’ fields of vision, a human face or form one small element in a towering blue expanse. The movie, though small in cast—Brandon Perea, Steven Yeun, and Michael Wincott are the only others of note—and limited in location, has a grandeur of intent and a towering mystery as we watch the skies. As the film slowly unspools its secrets, Peele crafts sequences with hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck tingling suspense from nothing more than waiting for an element of the image to shift, to reveal new information or for the inscrutable UFO to emerge again.

In the vastness of the movie’s frames, riffing on Western iconography while inviting some vintage Spielberg by way of Carpenter comparisons, Kaluuya and Palmer are given compelling and charismatic characters to inhabit. The sibling interplay is full of loving teasing and real affection, but also the kind of prickly carefulness that can creep into grown familial tensions. There’s a charge from their contrasts. He’s thoughtful, slow to speak, with outer strength covering over his emotional pain. She’s excitable, making schemes within schemes, prone to rattle on and on in good times and bad. We can read all sorts of backstory in what’s not said between them, and the film’s final moments are a satisfying snap as their connection is suddenly drawn tight.

Peele builds to a simultaneous crescendo of character, theme, story, and style, and suddenly the mystery of it all is solved with answers that retroactively make every stray detail and detour lock into place. Peele’s honed his craft to make, if not his most powerful movie yet, his tightest and least immediately obvious in a still-entertaining package. Here’s a movie about our modern tendency to want the enormity of our world’s traumas reduced to the size of a screen—to process through gawking spectacle instead of crying through catastrophes. Instead of bringing us closer together, it can pull us further apart. So here’s Nope, with its grieving siblings confronted with enormous problems beyond the terrestrial norm. Can they survive long enough to get a picture? Maybe. Will that give them control over the situation? You can answer that in a single word. Guess which one.

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