BY Ian Bourland in Film , Opinion | 17 AUG 22

Jordan Peele’s ‘Nope’ Lampoons our Fetish for Documentation

The auteur inverts Hollywood genre tropes in an alien invasion romp that questions what we see and believe

BY Ian Bourland in Film , Opinion | 17 AUG 22

Many were surprised in 2017 when Jordan Peele — long established as part of the comedic duo Key & Peele — pivoted to directing films in the grimmer tones of horror and sci-fi. Get Out was arguably the best film of that year and established a template of auteur-ish, genre-bending projects that knowingly revived stale tropes to tell rich stories through its unnerving performances from then-rising stars such as Lupita Nyong’o and LaKeith Stanfield. Get Out, its follow-up Us (2019) and Peele-produced projects, such as an adaptation of the novel Lovecraft Country (2020) and a 2021 reboot of the Chicago slasher story Candyman, contributed to a raft of recent culture centering speculative modes as potent lenses onto the extremity of contemporary Black life.

OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) sits on a horse in a film still from 'Nope'
Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele’s 'Nope', 2022. Courtesy: Universal Pictures

In other words, Peele’s third film Nope (2022) was one of the most anticipated releases this year. True to form, the film toggles heightened realism with a fantastic premise: the narrative here centres on the sibling inheritors of the Black-owned Haywood horse ranch in rural California. Once promising, the ranch is now flagging, until OJ (an understated Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (a dynamic Keke Palmer) realize that the rolling hills around the corral are an area of high extraterrestrial activity. With the help of an ad hoc posse — portrayed by a supporting cast of Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott and Steven Yeun — antics ensue.

Narrative aside, perhaps what is most striking is how, with each passing year, Peele finds new ways to wring anticipation out of mundane objects and inferred events. Nope is a tour de force of cinematographic beauty and restraint — which is odd, given that the premise is open-range action extravaganza. If Get Out reworked the psychic and visceral registers of, say, early John Carpenter, this project is outwardly modelled more on the campy bombast of fare such as Wild Wild West (1999) or Cowboys and Aliens (2011).

Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) stands in the foreground and looks into the distance in film still from 'Nope'
Keke Palmer in Jordan Peele’s 'Nope', 2022. Courtesy: Universal Pictures

In spite of its big-budget conceit, Nope is at its best in its serene moments, when the characters are absorbed in memory or dancing to vintage 45 vinyls. Peele breaks the film into vignettes, each named for non-human characters who feature prominently in Nope itself and also in the fictional films and television series alluded to throughout. Among its braided reflections on familial legacy, insecurity and nostalgia, Nope — staged at the physical and temporal margins of ‘Hollywood’ writ large — is fundamentally a film about the history of film, and thus taps into a venerable vein of mythmaking unto itself. This is a cliché, certainly, as it seems inevitable that any ‘serious’ director eventually turns their sights on the company town. Yet, Peele’s atypical vantage revamps what could have easily become yet another exercise in self-referentiality: as one character notes, the Haywood siblings are ‘horse people’, and Nope is framed start-to-finish by human relationships with animals and, in particular, the ways in which those non-humans are callously instrumentalized in the service of spectacle — of getting the story on camera.

And getting that ‘perfect shot’ is, indeed, the true dramatic tension of Nope, in which lens-based recording is an animating leitmotif. Where the 8mm-toting cinephile or CCTV paranoiac are now shopworn cinematic tropes, Peele decentres the roving masculine subjectivities often implied therein. Instead, he lampoons the power of photographic vision, as well as our present-age fetish for documentation. In one sense, Nope is an extended riff on the post-Instagram ontological question: if it isn’t online, did it even happen?

Film still from Nope (2022)
Steven Yuen in Jordan Peele’s 'Nope', 2022. Courtesy: Universal Pictures

As part of its wider thematic palette, Nope takes important detours into the story of early photographer Eadweard Muybridge. While the story of his famed series, ‘The Horse in Motion’ (1878), as sketched out in the film, is not accurate per se, it does re-establish the equine origins of several signature California economies. Peele also plumbs ambiguities in the historical record to insist on the integrality of diasporic subjectivities to the foundational stories of the American West. Taken together, Nope’s treatment of the medium is neither a Spielbergian hosanna nor a Coen-esque send-up of filmmaking; rather, it is an extended meditation on seeing — on what is registered and what is obscured.

For all that, Nope lacks the critical bite of Get Out or Lovecraft Country, or the uncanny terrors of Us. Even as the action crescendos, the alien presence begins to feel like an extraneous MacGuffin. While the California noir-western is, admittedly, an evergreen source of associational and ambient pleasures, it seems Peele wants to take us beyond these and the more domestically rooted drama of his earlier projects. Callbacks to the adventure classics of millennial childhood abound here. It will be interesting to see if he continues on this track of becoming one of the most thoughtful, aesthetically attuned blockbuster-makers of our generation.

Main image: Jordan Peele, Nope, 2022, theatrical release poster. Courtesy: Universal Pictures

Ian Bourland is a critic and associate professor of art history at Georgetown University, USA. He writes widely on art, pop culture and aesthetics, and has published two books, Bloodflowers (Duke University Press, 2019) and Blue Lines (Bloomsbury, 2019).