For Ricky Park, it all started when the balloon popped. The year was 1998, and Park was the child star of a hit network sitcom opposite a chimpanzee. Then a balloon popped, and unspeakable carnage followed. But the lesson Park carried from that incident had nothing to do with a balloon and everything to do with a moment of cross-species connection. Twenty-four years later, Park’s moment becomes calamitous hubris. Dodge one bullet, and you think you’re invincible.
OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) knows better. He’s a Hollywood horse trainer who knows the hits keep coming. He runs his father’s horse-wrangling outfit on the outskirts of Los Angeles in Agua Dolce, or Sweet Water—a perfectly California name for a semi-arid desert trying to attract buyers. Park (Steven Yuen as an adult; Jacob Kim as the youth in flashback) owns a Western-era theme park down the valley from Haywood’s stables. Park’s also been buying Haywood’s horses, bit by bit, as Haywood tries to pay off the debts dad left behind.
Written, produced, and directed by Jordan Peele, Nope is the filmmaker’s third monster movie in a run that’s been both commercially successful and critically acclaimed. In Get Out, the monster was next door. In Us, they came from below. In Nope, it comes from above. It feels like Peele’s Jaws: A predator moves in and starts feeding. Whys are secondary.
Back to the late Otis Sr. (Keith David): His death is mysterious, but no foul play is suspected. The only thing in question is the longevity of Haywood Hollywood Horses. OJ isn’t much for showmanship. To say he’s not one for emotion is like calling water wet. In some scenes, he’s catatonic—Kaluuya wields this stillness into solid laughs in tiny moments. The talking and energy come courtesy of OJ’s sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), a wannabe writer/director/actress/singer; Angel (Brandon Perea), a motor-mouthed computer salesman willing to entertain more than one conspiracy theory; and Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), an old-school cinematographer in search of the one perfect shot.
Focus on that last line for a second. Though Holst is more or less a walking punch line, there’s a lot of talk in Nope about getting that one perfect shot—the “Oprah Shot,” as Emerald calls it. Proof so perfect even the most ardent skeptics will concede. But how this plays out is somewhat deflating. Watch Jaws a dozen times, and you’ll see how Steven Spielberg introduces objects and notions with such ease that when they pay off, it feels preordained. Watch Nope once and it feels like the whole set is decorated with Chekhov’s gun.
If you’re starting to think I’m tap-dancing around to avoid spoilers, I’m really not. One of my disappointments with Nope is that there aren’t many. Nope is less about revealing truths and more about reframing what’s already there. Take young Park’s moment of the balloon and the chimpanzee. When the adult Park tells OJ and Emerald about that day, he does so by reconstructing a Saturday Night Live skit based on the carnage. Park finds it all hilarious and spot-on. The old: tragedy plus time equals comedy. But when Peele flashes back to ’98, there’s nothing funny about it. Just trauma. There are some tragedies not even time can enliven.
If these two scenes are meant to provide a skeleton key to Nope, then Peele doesn’t capitalize. There’s a clever moment when OJ realizes that what he’s been looking at all this time isn’t what he thought it was, but the revelation only alters tactics, not the goal or even how we view what’s happening.
Written and directed by Jordan Peele
Produced by Ian Cooper, Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Steven Yeun, Keith David
Universal Pictures, Rated R, Running time 135 minutes, Opens July 22, 2022