“Nope” review: This is Jordan Peeles most daring movie yet, a horror-sci-fi-western mashup

3 stars. 2 hours 11 minutes. Rated R

Sky-swallowing imagery is stock in UFO flicks, from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Arrival.” In horror movies, intimate, unknowable darkness births all sorts of personalized monsters. And the western? Land, people and nature are at war, taming and being tamed.

In “Nope,” Jordan Peele’s latest, most assured sci-fi-horror outing, the writer-director combines these genres in ways that look and feel like nothing else, and mostly for the better.

Only as his Comedy Central sketch series, “Key & Peele,” approached its fifth and final season in 2015 did we begin to grasp Peele’s gleefully deranged mind, which had been creeping up all along via parodies of “Night of the Living Dead,” “The Exorcist,” and “Saw” (credit, too, to partner Keegan-Michael Key and director and Denver native Peter Atencio).

“Nope” opens with a TV flashback that bleeds into a scene of death and destruction on a sitcom set. A birthday hat-wearing chimpanzee named Gordy lopes into frame with bloodied arms, a woman’s legs visible from behind a couch. We can only imagine what happened.

In the present, horse wrangler Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) mounts one of his steeds as son Otis Jr., or OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), looks on. Tiny bits of metal — coins, keychains — begin zipping down at terminal velocity from the sky, one of them piercing Otis Sr.’s skull. It’s an alarming one-two punch of an intro.

With his father dead, quiet OJ and his extroverted sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) are heirs to La La Land’s oldest horse-training business, which is proudly Black in the lineage of one of the first-ever moving images (a Black man on a horse, perhaps symbolizing the ignored role of Black people in the making of the West, including Hollywood). Haywood’s business appears to be ailing as CGI has nearly erased the need for real, unpredictable animals.

The troubles force OJ to sell off symbolically named horses such as Ghost and Lucky, supposedly to save the family ranch, although the thread is never tugged at. He visits a roadside tourist trap to buy one of them back, meeting Rick “Jupe” Park, playing with unnerving perfection by Steve Yeun. It turns out former child-star Ricky was the only survivor of the 1998 chimpanzee attack, and he’s transformed that — only a few knew what really happened there — into a private museum of kitsch that keeps his trauma at arm’s length instead of confronting it.

On their isolated ranch in Agua Dulce, Calif., from which OJ can vaguely see and hear Ricky’s UFO/western show, he and Emerald notice strange things, such as battery-sapping power outages and a distant cloud that refuses to budge. The less-is-more tack begins to loosen as Peele reveals more of our hungry antagonist while also pushing forward the Haywoods’ improbable schemes.

Peele’s restraint allows these early moments to flourish in surreality even as they tip toward absurd. He relishes his role, pulling out a few jump scares from his big bag of tricks and tossing out red herrings. While the film can be taken at face value, no socio-political readings needed, it continues Peele’s themes of reckoning-with-racism in the tradition of the excellent “Get Out” and unfocused “Us.” “Nope” is another bold work of art, at once entertaining and challenging, but like “Us,” the third act is a collapsed circus tent.

Sets are impeccably designed and dressed, from moldy homesteads and cheesy western nostalgia to soulless big-box stores, arguably the America we live in now. The plot doesn’t twist so much as inflate. White-dude Hollywood — personified as grizzled cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) — is more obsessed with the ideal, magic-hour shot than anyone’s safety. Wincott’s character could have been summed up in a line; instead he’s a grating plot device.

Real cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (“Let the Right One In,” “Spectre,” “Tenet”) shifts from inky tones to saturated daylight colors, moving away from Peele’s exploitation-of-animals grimness and directly into the taming of a supernatural entity. The range is gorgeous and at all times perfect for the action. And there’s plenty of it.

Spoiler-sensitive movies can seem like “That kind of story vs. this one,” but in hindsight, they were always that kind of story. “Nope” is cryptic at times, and will most certainly send people scrambling back to Peele’s other work, but it’s also his most straightforward film.

That pairs well with the Old-Hollywood scale and spectacle. Like the origins of cinema — underappreciated, forgotten by most — characters scramble to document what they see with all available technology. Images that, when shuffled quickly, imply motion and reveal hidden truths. Peele is well on his way to being among those who have refocused the art form, and “Nope” will ensure that we keep watching.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, In The Know, to get entertainment news sent straight to your inbox.

Source: Read Full Article