“The cinema’s screen is Athena’s polished shield.” Broken into 3 distinct sections, Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude’s sensationalist exploitation satire, “Bad Luck Banging, Or Looney Porn,” remains one of the most daring movies made about post-pandemic outrage. Definitions of terms ranging from “blowjob” to “cinema” are presented in visual dictionary form; a juxtaposition of images and ideas – the very purpose of film as an art. Genres come about because of the Gorgon’s gaze; narrative signs and structures expressively manipulated via top hat, technical wizardry; stories often too painful to look directly at, filtered through an artistic psyche in the form of mass entertainment; stories in conversation with themselves, reflected back at the audience.
Jordan Peele’s terrific third feature, “Nope,” pairs old fashioned Hollywood showmanship with the director’s already trademark blend of humor and dread, crafting a 1970s-style, thinking-viewer’s blockbuster with more genuine spectacle than any contemporary Disney production; think ”Jaws” crossed with Robert Altman’s underseen Western satire “Buffalo Bill and the Indians (or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson). If “Get Out,” heralded the arrival of a bold new voice, and “Us,” found that artist stretching his reputation into M. Night Shyamalan-twist territory, “Nope” finds Peele aiming for an auteurist mixed-tape enterprise: his equivalent of a Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino film (functionally speaking, Kubrick and Spielberg influences worn proudly on its sleeve). The pre-credits portion alone is worth the price of admission.
Its primary musical suite (score composed by Michael Abels) curiously reminiscent of Jonny Greenwood’s track, Open Spaces, from “There Will Be Blood,” “Nope” is a film about territory; those who gate-keep and those who exploit a system built on monetizing trauma to their advantage. Opening on a TV sound-stage following a horrific tragedy inspired by a true to life media scandal, Peele continually returns to a flashback origin story that’s a clear nod to PTA’s “Magnolia,” veiling its true purpose as a Western genre catalyst until about the halfway point, the film divided into 5 sections a la Tarantino’s “Rio Bravo” fixation, each named after an animal (3 of them horses). The chapterless headings don’t feel forced, per say, more a signifier of the level of scale the director is aiming for. Mirroring generational trauma a la Anderson’s aforementioned San Fernando Valley tapestry, Peele’s movie dives deep into the idea of inheritance, familial, physical, and, most importantly, historically chronicled.
A squabbling sibling pair of Hollywood horse wranglers, OJ and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya & Keke Palmer) are the descendents of the jockey from Edward Muybridge’s “The Horse in Motion,” famously the first projected instance of physical movement captured on celluloid. Muybridge is taught in just about every basic film school course, but nobody knows the name of the Black jockey who rode the horse. Turns out, he’s OJ and Emerald’s great, great, great grandfather. When car keys and other mysterious objects start raining out of the sky (Exodus 8:2), their father (the brilliant Keith David, in a small cameo) slinks off his mare, a hole through one of his eyes from looking up at the sky at the wrong time. OJ desperately attempts to get him to the hospital, bleeding all over the passenger seat window, but it’s to no avail. Cue: title card.
Soon after, their horses start acting strangely, galloping across the Haywood ranch when ominous noises boom from the cloudy heavens, also seemingly causing electrical outages in random spots (even causing cell phones to blackout, temporarily). Catching the shape of something too quiet to be a plane, OJ starts sensing something off, paying a visit to their neighbor, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who now owns a Western themed carnival/amusement park, Jupiter’s Claim. He’s curated a museum for himself, about himself, hidden in the corner of his office, honoring the heyday of a short-lived family sitcom he starred in, alongside the chimpanzee, Gordy (Terry Notary). Ricky presents himself as a welcoming family man, but in reality he’s a charlatan, housing a troubling fixation that results in him smiling away the pain of the past, much like a certain genre that pretends Black people didn’t ride horses.
When the unidentified flying object seems to suck a fake horse prop Emerald lifts from their gladhanding Jupiter’s Claim associates into the heavens (OJ sells them his best mare out of monetary desperation) the siblings become determined to catch the supposed UFO on film, hitting up Fry’s for surveillance cameras. In a bit of convenient plotting, their techie, Angel (Brandon Perea, serviceable but outclassed by his co-stars) is an Ancient Aliens conspiracy theorist. Soon, without the Haywood’s permission, he’s their eye on the skies, watching for the extraterrestrial object from behind the customer service counter. In keeping with the picture’s fixation on movies as a means of capturing sensation (there’s definitely something to the fact that phone cameras cease to function) they eventually also enlist the help of a notorious wildlife filmmaker (Michael Wincott), so old school he still edits celluloid by hand.
While there’s a lot less to “spoil” than Peele’s previous films (the marketing campaign also seems to be deliberately throwing in red herrings), “Nope” is the kind of film you want to experience, not listen to people’s vapid complaints based on expectation bias. Hiring cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema (a near perfect choice for obvious “Interstellar” reasons), Peele manages to make the sky feel like a character that engulfs both the screen and the audience. Much will surely be written about how it treats clouds like Spielberg’s famous shark fin. The aesthetic almost seems to dwarf its own frame at times, tilting and traversing via motions that sway between whirlwind and fluid. “Nope” is deceptively simple on a story level; it’s the film’s cinematic craft that towers, text superlatively interwoven.
Building to its climax, the film features a plan and execution montage, laid out atop a Monopoly board. Angel claims the Top Hat as his piece (and code name), Emerald gets the thimble, and is shown sewing colorful fabrics together like a costume designer. Much like “Inception,” Peele’s blockbuster is very much a metaphor for the filmmaking process itself, who is allowed to partake in the decision making, and what the end goals truly are. Will OJ and Emerald really be happy selling the first footage of life from out yonder for some TMZ credit, or does what hails from above provide a miracle of opportunity that will bail them out of financial trouble?
“Nope” is a monster movie about ignoring certain chapters of the past when it best serves our present. It laughs in the face of danger one minute and then flees from a showdown the next. In this sense, it may end up being Peele’s most divisive picture but it’s easily his most grandly schematic. It’s a revisionist Western in the same sense that Altman’s “Buffalo Bill” is – more “Dr. Strangelove” than “Django Unchained” – although with mainstream intentions attached. Sure, “Jaws” inevitably has Nixon-era undertones, as Peele’s mass entertainment equivalent has a sharp political bite as well – almost inarguably richer, thematically speaking, than most Spielberg ventures – but its filmmaking aims are quite candid. Get the audience in the seats; allow them to experience a complex ray of emotions; then get them to say: cheese! “Smile, you son of a…”