Oscar-winning filmmaker Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) has established himself as perhaps the most exciting director of the moment, with each increasingly ambitious feature film delivering tense thrills and mysteries to be unraveled through multiple rewatches, and his latest blockbuster, Nope, is another mind-bender that asks what if the spectacle that we are all staring at in awe is actually looking back at us.
A signature of Peele’s work, Nope exists on multiple levels, not least of which gives light to a little known part of cinematic history, ‘The Horse in Motion”, photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s 1880s two-second clip described in the film as featuring the first live action movie star, though the identity of the Black rider of the titular horse remains a mystery (explored in a fascinating featurette, “Mystery Man of Muybridge,” in the Blu-ray extras).
Our main characters are the proud descendants of that historically unknown man riding the horse, and today, they work in providing trained, well behaved horses to appear in movie productions. All of this quickly creates a whole world located directly in the middle of the Hollywood blockbuster industry machine, and yet as unseen and unfortunately too often overlooked as that Black rider in Muybridge’s clip, or the hundreds of “below the line” crew workers and craftspeople who make a major motion picture happen but are far from household names.
O.J. Haywood and his sister Emerald run their father’s (Keith David) Southern California ranch, following their dad’s unexpected and sudden death. The casting is impeccable, with Daniel Kaluuya turning in a powerful, understated performance as O.J., and the always wonderful Keke Palmer bringing a dreamer’s energy and an entrepreneur’s drive to Emerald.
The movie is not about the horses, per se, but it is, in a certain sense, about the human impulse to tame what cannot or should not be tamed.
Somewhat hidden within the larger story of an unidentified flying object spotted over the Haywoods’ California ranch, there is an especially disturbing side story about a child actor who witnessed his sitcom co-star monkey named Gordy snap and kill his other co-stars during the taping of a birthday-themed episode. The adult version of Ricky “Jupe” Park is played by Steven Yeun, and his tale serves as a striking metaphor and foreshadowing of the sometimes deadly consequences of attempting to wrangle a naturally wild animal.
Jupe and his wife have opened a Wild West-inspired theme park called Jupiter’s Claim, based on a movie he starred in back in the 1990s. The park is a time capsule celebrating a once-iconic pop culture celebrity who has watched the Hollywood machine move on and leave him behind, much like it did the Black rider in Muybridge’s clip. The park, as Peele says in the excellent Blu-ray documentary, is “a satire of the American dream.”
Brandon Perea co-stars as Angel, a tech wiz who helps the Haywoods in their attempts to capture their own historic clips of what they are seeing in the clouds. Michael Wincott also joins their project as a grizzled and grumpy filmmaker who cannot deny himself the chance to possibly shoot a legitimately history-making image.
The are homages to and clear inspirations from some of cinema’s most beloved genre thrillers, including, perhaps most prominently, the Spielberg landmarks Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as Peele immerses viewers into his world, allowing the film to truly live within the smallest details, like the dust swirling in the wind, the constant shuffling of hooves, or the quiet contemplative moments when O.J. is in deep thought.
Mild spoiler alert: When the abductions inevitably begin, the true horror aspects of Peele’s “monster” are on full display, even before it begins literally raining blood, as you can hear the screaming of taken victims coming from inside the entity.
The Collector’s Edition 4K set that we were provided comes loaded with more than 90 minutes of never-before-seen bonus content, including an entertaining and revealing 56-minute documentary that dives into Peele’s vision; as well as a 14-minute featurette exploring the conception, design, and execution of the entity referred to in the film as “Jean Jacket”; a five-minute featurette on “The Horse in Motion” by Eadweard Muybridge and how it relates to the larger themes in the film; and a fun gag reel of on set bloopers.
There are also four deleted scenes and a gorier extended version of the celebrity monkey Gordy’s bloody and unforgettable sitcom set massacre.
“It’s epic in how personal it is,” Peele says in the intimate documentary, Shadows: The Making of Nope, “but I also just wanted to try to step up and try to make a film that would’ve brought me just pure movie magic when I was younger.”
Part of the genius of Nope is how easily we agree with Emerald and Jupe that the phenomenon they are witnessing can and should be capitalized on, ignoring, as they do, the inherent risks within their opportunism, mirroring the dark truth hidden behind much of our romanticized history of the American West, where the story takes place, and even of Hollywood itself.
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