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Say “yep” to Nope.

Haywood Ranch

OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya)
OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya)

Jordan Peele’s Nope is a love letter to movies, particularly the slow-burn, slow-reveal storytelling of movies like Close Encounters and Alien. That era was also when movie trailers and promotional materials were built around protecting the movie’s mystery and thereby further fueling the anticipation. The movie had to be seen in a theatre (the bigger the better) in order to experience the big reveal firsthand.

But Nope extends beyond those sci-fi influences and dabbles with classic western themes of having mouths to feed and too much work to do; no time for play when so much has to be done back at the ranch. This is Cowboys & Aliens told with a more sophisticated, thematically rich bent.

In many respects Nope is simply more fun and broadly enjoyable than Peele’s racially themed Get Out and the shrouded, densely packed Us, while also leaving plenty of room for the analysis and dissection that made those two such rich experiences.

The action starts with the sky raining keys and coins. It’s a bizarre situation on a remote ranch for training and housing horses used in movies. How can something like that possibly happen? The explanation comes much later in the movie. In the meantime, the story introduces an assortment of characters, all tied to the movie and entertainment industries.

There’s the Haywood family; O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah) and Emerald (Keke Palmer, Hustlers) are siblings and descendants of Hollywood royalty, at least in this historical-fiction narrative context which places their great great great great grandfather as the jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s groundbreaking footage of a galloping horse.

The Haywoods’ business relations extend out to Ricky Park (Steven Yeun, Minari), a child star back in the ‘90s in a sitcom called Gordy’s Home. That’s when things go from weird to even weirder (and it doesn’t take long to get there).

Gordy was a trained chimpanzee. One day, while filming an episode (in front of a live studio audience, of course), they’re celebrating Gordy’s birthday. The balloons pop. The chimp goes nuts.

He murders his castmates.

How can all of this possibly tie together?

That’s where the magic of Peele’s storytelling mastery comes into play. Much like Christopher Nolan crafts narratives tightly packed with layers and themes, so too does Peele.

Jupiter’s Claim

The movie begins with a quote from the Bible, Nahum 3:6, which states, “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.”

Movies are man-made spectacle. But what about when the tables are turned?

Consider that quote in the context of the narrative threads Peele weaves together. There’s the TV star chimp. There’s the relationship between people and animals, particularly as tools in creating spectacle. There’s an old-school cinematographer enamored with old black-and-white footage of wildlife. There’s the Haywood backstory with the Muybridge footage. There’s the activity at Jupiter’s Claim, a Wild West theme park. And there’s the main event: the sci-fi element.

Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer)
Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer)

Peele tells his story in his own time, in his own way. That alone makes Nope a treat. Peele has a vision; not many directors have that command of imagery and storytelling to the point where having their name on the director’s chair instantly makes the movie an event. In that regard, Peele has now saddled up (pardon the pun) alongside other top-shelf directors (who are also recognized by their last name alone): Spielberg, Coppola, Nolan, Hitchcock, Welles among them. That’s good company to keep.

The richness of Peele’s details is thrilling. Listen closely to Yeun talk — in character — about his career, the days of Kid Sheriff and that harrowing day on the set of Gordy’s Home when Gordy runs amuck. It doesn’t stop there; the backstory gets a backstory to the point of talking about Chris Kattan portraying Gordy in a Saturday Night Live skit. Don’t forget: Kattan played a chimp, Mr. Peepers, during his SNL career.

Crazy detail.

And then there’s Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott, Hitchcock), the aforementioned cinematographer with a wonderfully sonorous voice. The Haywoods bring him on board for what’s first billed as “the money shot.” But no. That’s not quite right. He needs to go for “the impossible shot.” That’s the kind of shot that’d get any serious photographer or cinematographer chomping at the bit (pun intended). He bristles at talk of “reality.” He warms to the notion of “documentary.”

And that ties in to one of the movie’s best moments. Antlers arrives at the Haywood ranch with his homemade, non-electric camera (complete with slick product placement for IMAX) and O.J. and Emerald go nuts. He’s their guy; he’s got the gear. Their intense moment of hand-slapping, pumped-up excitement is a joy to behold and it’s destined for the Meme Hall of Fame.

Jean Jacket

Ricky Park (Steven Yeun)
Ricky Park (Steven Yeun)

So there it is. The layering. The sci-fi, the western and the horror, with a dash of tension-relieving levity.

There’s plenty of darkness in Nope, but Peele makes this one a highly entertaining ride. While the horror aspects are still jarring at moments, they’re not the primary focus. The horror here lingers in an atmospheric sense, with plenty left to the imagination. When the Haywood ranch house is showered in blood, it’s an awesome thrill, but the darkness is balanced with the light, just like the work of a great cinematographer (Hoyte van Hoytema, in this case).

As the best of the best movies require, there’s too much to absorb in one viewing. Too many details. Too many treats. And no doubt, too many Easter eggs.

To that end, also consider some of the prime casting picks for the smaller roles, like Osgood Perkins (son of Psycho’s Anthony Perkins) and the legendary Donna Mills (Play Misty for Me). She’s 81 and looking great.