NOPE – Review
Although the calendar tells us that we’re cruising into the last half of Summer, the soaring temps are making most of us feel as though we’ll never escape from the “furnace”. And so, the multiplex provides a welcome cool sanctuary, at least for a couple of hours or so, Of course, the big action blockbusters and animated feature frolics are still taking up a lot of space on the ole’ marquee. Horror fans may think that they’ll have to hold out till Fall after getting their spines “tingled” last month with THE BLACK PHONE (although the newest JURASSIC WORLD and Doc Strange installment had lotsa’ surprise scares). Not to fear (at least till the flick begins) because after a three-year ‘time-out” the studios’ new “golden god” (he did get an Oscar) of terror is back with a spooky story shrouded in secrecy, one that Hollywood hopes will have the ticket-buyers shouting “Yup!” to NOPE.
After a disturbing flashback scene at a TV sitcom soundstage, the film jumps ahead to an incident from earlier in this year. A freak accident at a dusty horse ranch in Agua Dulce, CA claims the life of its owner, Otis Haywood, JR. (Keith David) right in front of his son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya). Jump to the present day as the serious and somber OJ continues the family business of providing horses to the entertainment studios alongside his often flighty sister Emerald (Keke Palmer). Their newest gig is a bust so they haul the rowdy stallion to the owner of the old West-themed “tourist trap” Jupiter’s Claim, former child TV star (hmmm) Ricky Park (Steven Yeun). OJ considers this transaction more of a “rental” than “sale” as he hopes to buy back the steed. Later that night, the prized white “show-horse” Ghost vanishes. Due to the strange nocturnal activity, the Haywoods believe that a UFO may be involved, and some visual proof could net them some cash to save the ranch. A trip to the local “big box” electronics shop puts the duo in contact with the hustling retail “drone” Angel (Brandon Perea), who drives out and personally sets up the security cameras all around the house and stables. But he also hooks up a link to his computer system. When he sees some “weird stuff” in the skies, Angel insists that he be part of a trio to “get the vids”. And when a bizarre incident occurs at Ricky’s business, the trio becomes a quartet when they contact grizzled LA “camera jockey” Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott). Soon the documentary shoot turns into a fight for survival as a mysterious entity swooping down from the clouds makes the group its target.
Reteaming with his GET OUT director, Kaluuya turns into a tight, stoic performance as OJ often evoking the “close to vest” Western stars over cinema’s history from William S. Hart to Gary Cooper to Clint Eastwood, though he shows us that there’s a lot going on in his half-shut weary eyes. He’s got the burden of his family hertiage as he tries to keep things “afloat’, which accounts for his zeal in making a “viral cash splash”. But we also get a sense that he’s looking for a “payout” and “payback” as he thinks there’s more to his adored papa’s demise. And he’s the perfect balance to Palmer as the motor-mouthed Emerald whose brain seems to be in “over-drive” as she considers all the “angles”, and hoping to get a bit of respect from her bro. Almost matching her impressive energy level is Perea whose Angel goes from being on the “make” into a crusader for “truth” as he sets aside his greed to sound an alarm. Then there’s Wincott’s Holtz with his old-fashioned cyncical surly machismo putting out an “old school” filmmaker vibe in the Huston/Ford/Fuller heritage of getting the shot no matter what, pursuing the glory rather than the gold. Now he may look tad hokey in his classic cowboy attire, but Yeun brings a sense of pathos to the tale as he masks his traumatic past with a grin and a “y’all”. With the Heywoods he takes off the stetson and reveals the scared kid still pushed down to his spurs. Aside from these talented actors, there are many interesting almost-cameos from horror/SF vet David to a certain prime-time soap “vixen” from the 80s.
Oh, Kaluuya’s director, none other than the superb comic performer Jordan Peele, who also wrote this sci-fi horror-western hybrid. After taking an extra year off, no doubt due to the pandemic (GET OUT in 2017, US in 2019) he’s returned with a twisted story full of doom and dread, generating a smothering sense of unease almost from the first strange prologue flashback. But unlike his breakthrough hit, this effort feels a bit unfocused as we struggle to get into the script’s “stop and start’ pacing as it fiddles with the “timeline” and the sound mix makes the dialogue quite murky (perhaps going for the Howard hawks vocal overlapping). Still, there are powerful sequences keeping us on the edge of our seat along with a nice satirical self-aware tone (he explores the stand-up comedy quips about how characters of color wouldn’t be as eager to put themselves in danger as others in monster movies, hence “Nope” is uttered many times in the scary scenes). Actually, the sitcom scandal subplot would be worthy of its own film or at least an unnerving segement of Peele’s “Twilight Zone” reboot. Much time is spent on the planning for the final showdown, but (gotta’ be vague here) what has been “established” veers away into weird bursts of some pretty terrific specail effects. Much of the film is engaging and unnerving, but its last act spins its wheels and becomes tedious. I’ll take Peele’s first flick over this, but it’s more coherent than US and that;s the least negative apprasal of NOPE.
2.5 Out of 4
NOPE is now playing in theatres everywhere