The big picture – Winnipeg Free Press

<p>Universal Studios</p><p>Steven Yuen plays a former child actor who runs a western theme park in Nope.</p>




American auteur Jordan Peele goes big — really big — in his newest genre-exploding project.

Nope is a horror movie that riffs on alien invasion tropes before veering off in a sudden, weird direction. It’s a western, with wide vistas and a laconic lead, set near modern-day Los Angeles. It’s a film about film, and about our culture’s compulsion to point cameras at things, to turn reality into spectacle.

And like Peele’s previous works, Get Out and Us, it’s about race and representation, and especially the power dynamic of who’s seeing and who’s being seen.

Big in every way, Nope is Peele’s most ambitious project to date but not necessarily his most conventionally successful. The narrative can be abrupt and off-kilter, the themes sometimes trail off and there are a few inexplicable weak spots.

But with indelible images and intriguing ideas, Nope is original, unexpected and darkly strange, and that’s not something one usually gets to say in peak summer movie season.


Universal Studios

Steven Yuen plays a former child actor who runs a western theme park in Nope.

The story starts on a ranch. (Peele kept the plot points pretty hush-hush pre-release, and you might want to resist the urge to read up. The less you know going in to Nope the better, partly because one of the movie’s themes is how we deal with the unknown.)

After the death of their father in a disturbing freak accident, Otis (OJ) Haywood, Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya, who worked with Peele in Get Out) and his talky, funny, go-getter sister Emerald (Hustlers’ Keke Palmer) are trying to run Haywood’s Hollywood Horses. A family operation that trains horses for the movie industry, the business is now threatened by the unstoppable spread of CGI.

Em hypes the business with a spiel involving footage of a running horse and a Black rider, made up of photographs assembled into a kind of proto-motion picture in the 1870s. The photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, may be famous, but most people don’t know the name of the rider. Em claims him as her great-great-great grandfather and declares, pointedly, “Since the moment pictures could move, we got skin in the game.”

As a Black woman, Em understands the importance of getting behind the camera, of moving from observed “object” to observing subject. And the siblings get their chance when they realize something is lurking in the big skies near the ranch, its ominous presence associated with restless animals, unearthly noises and electrical anomalies.

They want to capture whatever that something is on film before anyone else can, and they get a chance, with the help of Angel Torres (Brandon Perea from The OA), an electronics whiz and conspiracy-loving UFO enthusiast, and Antlers Holst (the wonderfully craggy Canadian actor Michael Wincott), a legendary cinematographer who broods over predator-prey footage and obsesses — even in life-and-death situations — about light quality.

As they attempt to get what Holst calls “the impossible shot,” Peele is commenting on how we represent reality — and what that even means in our image-saturated world.


<p>Universal Studios</p><p>From left: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer and Brandon Perea in Nope.</p>

Universal Studios

From left: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer and Brandon Perea in Nope.

He’s also looking at the lure of another kind of spectacle, Hollywood celebrity. This comes out most effectively in a subplot involving OJ and Em’s nearby neighbour, whose character actually gets the movie’s most terrifying scenes.

A former child actor in a film franchise called Kid Sheriff, Ricky Park (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) now runs a hokey western theme park, a copy of a copy of the historical West. After the film franchise folded, young Ricky played “that Asian kid” in a bad sitcom that was cancelled after a hushed-up onset atrocity; the grown Ricky has somehow converted that real-life trauma into glib showbiz patter.

Peele makes big-idea films, but he likes to filter his thoughts through familiar genre structures. His touchstone here is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but he’s taken that Spielbergian sense of wonder and turned it into something OJ calls “a bad miracle,” something awe-inspiring but horrific.

The film’s title comes from what movie-goers shout out at the screen when movie characters are doing something they shouldn’t do: Running up the stairs instead of out of the house; separating from the group to explore a dark hallway; saying “Candyman” three times in a mirror.

There are some real “nope” moments here, but viewers expecting a conventional horror flick might be disappointed.

Peele sometimes doesn’t do enough to set up the scares, and when he does, his touch sometimes falters, as when he brings in some rather arbitrary M. Night Shyamalan-style rules for the antagonist.

He does much better with mood. Right from the get-go, Nope establishes an inescapable sense of unease, shot through with bleak comedy. There are night scenes that play brilliantly with visual ambiguity, as well as ominous, thrumming soundscapes (with bonus points for the ironic use of a Corey Hart song).

And there are some neat narrative tricks, and that includes the ultimate self-referencing joke: Peele critiques our need to turn everything into spectacle by creating a big-screen spectacle — and then daring us not to watch.

alison.gillmor@winnipegfreepress.com


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Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.



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