Sometimes movies try too hard to be clever.
NOPE (2022), the latest genre movie by Jordan Peele, the man who brought us GET OUT (2017) and US (2019), goes out of its way to be puzzling and thought-provoking, but this creative zeal often gets in the way of its storytelling, to the point where its narrative never really flows, instead laboring from start to finish as it works through an otherwise interesting story.
In NOPE, OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) operate a ranch in California where they train horses to appear in movies and television, so right off the bat you have an interesting premise just with the main characters’ occupation, as this isn’t something we see in movies all that often. OJ hasn’t been right since the tragic death of his father Otis (Keith David), who was killed in a bizarre accident when he was struck by random debris which fell from a passing plane. But OJ was there that day, and he never saw a passing plane in the sky, although there was thick cloud cover and some strange noises overhead.
Soon OJ is hearing and seeing strange things through the clouds which seem to always permeate the sky above their farmhouse. When computer geek Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) arrives to help them set up surveillance cameras, he joins them on their quest to find out what is going on in the sky above their home. And when OJ gets a closer look at the phenomenon, he tells his sister that it didn’t move like a ship, implying that while it seems to be a UFO, it might be something different…
And that’s the premise of NOPE, as the main characters try to unravel the mystery in the skies above their home.
As stories go, I liked the one told in NOPE, but as I said, the way Jordan Peele tells it comes across as more labored than polished. Peele obviously chose to tell the story in this way to be more creative and innovative. Scenes often end in the middle, effectively teasing the audience, not letting them know answers and information needed to figure things out. The movie also opens bizarrely, with a scene from a cancelled sitcom after a tragedy struck.
We find out later that former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) who runs a western show not far from OJ’s ranch, was on the set of that sitcom when the tragedy ensued, something that scarred him greatly. Ricky’s story ties in directly with the main one in the movie because he too has seen the strange phenomenon in the sky, but his take on it is different from OJ’s, and a lot of his interpretation is based on his childhood trauma. So, it all connects. Eventually.
As does the plot point about OJ’s relationship with his horses. Everything that happens in this story is there for a reason. I don’t have a problem with that. But the convoluted way Peele goes about telling his story gets in the way of effective storytelling, and as a result, I had a difficult time warming up to this one.
It also gets in the way of the characterizations. No one in this movie really comes to life, in spite of some nifty acting performances.
Daniel Kaluuya, who won the Oscar last year for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021), and who was also nominated for Best Actor for his work in GET OUT, is a terrific actor, and his talents are on full display here in NOPE. He plays OJ as a brooding, grieving son who is not yet over the death of his father. He’s also the strong, silent type, and barely says much of anything throughout the movie. OJ’s personality reflects the feel of the entire movie: quiet, brooding, and not that exciting.
Keke Palmer as OJ’s sister Emerald is the opposite of her brother, as she is lively, outspoken, and anything but introspective.
I also enjoyed Steven Yeun’s performance as Ricky, the former child actor now running a family friendly western show in the middle of California nowhere. Yeun is very good in a role that at first seems tangent to everything else that is going on in the movie, but when the big reveal is made near the end, it makes sense at that moment how his story ties into the main one. Yeun, who played Glenn on THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2020) was also nominated for an Oscar last year for Best Actor in MINARI (2020).
It was fun to see Keith David for a couple of seconds (should have been more!) as OJ’s dad Otis. David has enjoyed a long career going all the way back to his performance as Childs in John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).
Brandon Perea as geek Angel Torres primarily provides the comic relief throughout the movie, and Michael Wincott plays a dedicated cameraman who agrees to help them film what’s going on in the skies above their home to give them proof, in a role that should have been much more interesting than it ultimately was. While Wincott is fine, the writing is not.
Jordan Peele wrote the screenplay, and with the exception of OJ, the characters in this one do not come to life. Michael Wincott’s cameraman character, specifically, is left dangling in the wind. He comes in and does his thing, yet we know nothing about him. The other characters are shallow as well.
While the story is clever and creative, and the reveal is satisfying, the execution here is not. Peele seems to have decided that he wanted to make this movie feel like a puzzle, something for audiences to think on and figure out, and for the most part, that’s what NOPE is. But it gets in the way of the narrative, and it reminded me of a work in progress, where another draft of the screenplay was needed, one where things would be polished, to hammer points home and make sure the story works, because ultimately, it doesn’t work completely. Why not? The number one reason is there’s little or no emotional connection with the characters.
I liked NOPE better than Peele’s previous outing, US, which I didn’t like at all, but I still strongly prefer GET OUT to this latest outing by Peele.
It has its moments. Like one where OJ is terrified of something he’s seeing, and he turns away shaking his head muttering, “Nope!” which was a genuine laugh-out-loud moment, as well as a light bulb moment for the meaning of the title, and there are flashes of genuine suspense and intrigue, but more often than not, there are long periods of labored exposition and scenes that end before they should to keep audiences guessing, but when you do this too much, audiences lose interest in guessing.
I liked the reveal, but after this, the third act of the film continues to drudge through a long climax which strangely was the least exciting part of the movie, mostly because we were watching superficial characters deal with a somewhat interesting but never horrifying threat.
In its defense, NOPE has a worthwhile theme, and the story it tells is actually a good one, but the way it tells it doesn’t do it any favors. Simply put, it can’t get out of its own way.
I liked NOPE, but I didn’t love it.
It’s thought-provoking science fiction. It’s a fairly creepy horror tale. But is it an engrossing movie that I am going to want to watch over and over again?
In a word: