Jordan Peele has a lot on his mind. Big ideas about spectacle, filmmaking, family, and (sorry) trauma are all swirled together in Nope like a big soft serve cone. It looks really great, and tastes pretty good too, but it all melts away before we can really enjoy it.
O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) has been tasked with running his family’s business following the freak death of his father. They train horses for movies, and trace their lineage back to the very first moving images, Eadweard Muybridge's photographs of a Black jockey riding a horse. Their great great great grandfather was the jockey. While O.J.’s father Otis (O.J. stands for Otis Jr.) was beloved by filmmakers, they aren’t as hot on O.J., seemingly because he lacks the charisma of his dad. The business is in trouble, and O.J. has had to sell several horses just to keep them afloat.
When O.J. sees what he believes is a U.F.O. over their family ranch, his sister Emerald (a scene-stealing Keke Palmer) sees it as an opportunity to make money. If they can just get a good, clear shot of the U.F.O. — an Oprah-worthy shot — they could make as much as $100,000.
Obviously, it’s not that easy. Occasionally Nope becomes a movie about how hard it is to make a movie. There’s a diva actress who won’t come out to film her scene, a director whose entire career is on the line, and they even enlist an actual cinematographer who forces the production to go over schedule in an attempt at capturing the perfect shot. In a film full of intersecting threads, this is the strongest one.
The rest of the film is overstuffed, leaving us with more questions than answers. The wedge driven between O.J. and Emerald by their seemingly domineering father is only hinted at, and although Kaluuya and Palmer work best together when they’re overcoming their past, it is one we only sort of understand. The siblings have a neighboring amusement park run by a former child star (Steven Yeun) who experienced something horrifying on a TV set in the ‘90s, and whose arc is abruptly cut short. You’re left feeling like there was a lot left on the cutting room floor, potential moments of catharsis scrapped in favor of a two-hour running time.
Despite all of that, Nope is undoubtedly entertaining. It’s big and beautiful, much like the open sky of inland California that serves as its backdrop. In tandem with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Peele crafts a great-looking film, one that reminds you that most blockbusters today look like (pardon the pun) horse shit.
Kaluuya and Palmer, two very fine actors, get the chance to show off skill sets we aren't used to seeing from them — comedy for him, drama for her. Yet their performances are not enough to make up for the lack of clarity around their characters’ relationship. We’re meant to root for them to come together, but have they ever really been apart? We can’t be sure, and the film doesn’t seem too interested in explaining.
As Nope reaches its climax, you can’t help but feel that its most tense moments are behind it. It’s almost as if while trying to cram all of his thoughts into the movie, Peele has let its plot deflate, like a balloon left over from a birthday party. You want it to pop, but that would spook the horses.