By Stephane Dunn
No doubt Jordan Peele is both a master movie marketeer and one of the most exciting storytellers of the last five years. Get Out (2017) catapulted the comedic – horror performer onto the major rising film director map. And while a tad less satisfying, Peele’s second film, Us (2019), along with several of his Monkey Paw productions have refreshed and revised dramatic horror through daringly creative explorations of the social and psychic implications of American racial history. Few popular contemporary motion pictures have done the most notable exception being the Candyman film series. Peele’s latest effort Nope seems to promise another unique foray into this but falls frustratingly short.
In Nope, sister Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) and her brother OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya), attempt to maintain the family’s California ranch and business (Hollywood horse training) after their father, Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) is suddenly killed by what appears to be a freakish natural phenomenon. The vivacious rebel of the two siblings, Emerald, explains to a Hollywood crew before filming that the Haywood family descend from a pioneering Black horse jockey who has been obscured in mainstream history and their father successfully established them as a rare presence in Hollywood as animal handlers.
Pivotal studies like historian Pellom McDaniels’, The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy, highlight the fascinating story of black horse jockeys, which has been marginalized in American sports history, and certainly on screen. The Haywood family’s land and horse training origins appear to be a tantalizing thematic strand. But it’s never developed such that it builds the psychological implications for characters that we’ve come to expect from Peele. Instead of wondering how it’s going to turn out and anticipating the twist or two we don’t see coming, Nope becomes too much of a jigsaw puzzle – what’s going on and why and how do any of the pieces fit together and push the story forward?
Little else in the film coherently flow together compellingly, including the most important element, the menacing alien presence haunting the Haywood land and surrounding tourist curiosity. Ditto the backstory of the monkey that haunts a supporting character, Ricky “Jupe” Park” (Steven Yeun). The family history and connection to the land dangles in isolation. Instead of juicy motivation, there’s a looser surface story about chasing a picture of the elusive alien and thus hit the Oprah level attention jackpot and regain some of the horses that have been sold to keep the ranch afloat. The almost cameo presence of the arresting Keith David as Haywood Sr., is a missed opportunity to serve up a story that has the meaning and weight around a ghostly enigma we can anticipate as much as the characters being stalked by it.
Blood and gore horror flicks with killer on the loose murdering randomly or pointedly are expected, common elements of the genre, but Peele, with his Alfred Hitchcock-Stephen King like touch for suspense and psychic intrigue, usually takes us on an intense emotional ride through an enthralling story that has unapologetic historical and contemporary urgency. Any symbolism in this case works in complimentary service rather than as a separate, overwhelming force in a film, which begins to happen early on in Nope. Get Out set an inevitable expectation for Peele’s cinematic storytelling, and he’s still being daring as a storyteller, still thinking outside the genre and Hollywood box. His latest effort nails the intriguing title, setting, and marketing and benefits from an able cast and a mosaic of fascinating story threads. Do they land together in satisfying fashion? Nope. Still, a Jordan Peele vehicle is a worth seeing experience even when falling somewhat short of its own and our expectations.