Review: 'Nope' is a spellbinder that keeps pushing boundaries

Never try to predict director Jordan Peele.

July 22, 2022, 4:05 AM

If it takes the sight of horses flying to make supernatural believers of us all, then head out to theaters -- preferably those with IMAX -- to truly appreciate the wicked wonders of "Nope," the third cinema provocation from Jordan Peele. It stays gripping even when its plot stumbles.

Never try to predict Peele. As he proved with his Oscar-winning screenplay for 2017's "Get Out," with a worldwide gross of $255 million matched by his 2019 follow-up with "Us," Peele knows how to mix humor and horror, along with a slashing critique of race and class in America and the violence that goes with them.

"Nope" marks Peele's first spin into science fiction, recalling the Steven Spielberg classic, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," as filtered through the questing mind of a game-changer who started his career as one half of the smartly satirical, sketch-comedy team of Key & Peele.

Peele is the real deal, the bizarro brilliant creator of so-called "social thrillers" that go far beyond the commercial duties of a summer blockbuster. Sure, you can enjoy "Nope" for the thrill ride it is, but look deeper and you'll find a spellbinder that keeps pushing boundaries.

PHOTO: Keke Palmer is pictured in Universal's trailer for Jordan Peele's thriller "Nope."
Keke Palmer is pictured in Universal's trailer for Jordan Peele's thriller "Nope."
Universal Pictures/YouTube

Daniel Kaluuya, a true master of reactive acting, excels as OJ Haywood, a low-key cowboy who manages a California horse ranch with his firebrand sister Emerald (Keke Palmer). As an actress, singer and talk-show host, Palmer is an explosive counterpoint to Kaluuya, who uses his expressive eyes to speak volumes about invaders falling from the sky.

The Haywood ranch is the oldest ever Black-owned horse training service with ancestors who go back to the beginnings of Black cinema, not to mention the 1972 Sidney Poitier western, "Buck and the Preacher," which made history by casting Black actors in starring roles.

Since the death of their father Otis (Keith David), the siblings have become convinced that a UFO is wreaking havoc on their ranch where animals are trained for Hollywood productions, a service that goes back to 1878 when a Black jockey -- a forefather of the Haywoods -- appeared in a silent-film short that helped invent movies.

With support from tech nerd Angel Torres (a standout Brandon Perea) and camera whiz Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), OJ and Emerald are hellbent on getting proof of alien existence on camera. Why? To make money off it, the guiding principle of life in the U.S.

PHOTO: Daniel Kaluuya is shown in a scene from "Nope."
Daniel Kaluuya is shown in a scene from "Nope."
Universal Pictures

Also trying to profit from alien spectacle is traumatized former child star Ricky "Jupe" Park (a stellar Steven Yeun), who runs a Wild West show for which the Haywoods provide animals and wranglers. If they can also provide Jupe with a side hustle in UFOs, so much the better.

To say more would get me trashed by the spoiler police. Peele is possessed by movie love and a need to challenge the thing he loves. That he does it with twisted humor and unexpected feeling cements his reputation as a visionary who wouldn't be caught dead lecturing audiences.

From the haunting shots of a world out of balance to the inflated, multi-colored decoys that OJ and Emerald use to lure in the ETs, "Nope" is alive with beauty and terror, heightened by the genius camera work of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema ("Tenet").

Initially, you might be thrown by the artful design of Peele's images, from the broken serenity of a hovering cloud to the shocking sight of a movie set bloodied by a rampaging chimp. Just don't dismiss "Nope" as a movie Peele let get away from him. He's too good for that, as multiple viewings will prove.

Say yes to "Nope." It will pin you to your seat.

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