A movie trailer’s main function is to advertise a future coming attraction. In essence, it is a commercial, announcing to the masses of so and so’s new movie, starring so and so, and so forth. But film trailers can also be an art form. The worst example of this is the annoying trailer for Bullet Train, Brad Pitt’s latest action snoozer.
The best new example of this are the teaser trailers for Jordan Peele’s latest film, NOPE. Simple and cryptic, bizarre, mindful and calculating, and never giving too much away, we are treated to literally a few seconds of some very strange goings on – an ominous night sky, a fist bump between a human and primate, a woman is thrown into the sky by a menacing force, a shadowy object about to engulf a man on his horse; memorable (and probably iconic) images that hit the unconscious so hard, you feel like a little kid again. And that’s exactly how I felt watching NOPE.
Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), the owner of Haywood Hollywood Horse Ranch, which provides horse wrangling services to Hollywood productions, dies suddenly after a bizarre event on his ranch. Survived by his practical son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and free spirit daughter Em (Keke Palmer), the siblings inherit the business amid financially trying times. In an effort to stay afloat they sell off some of their stable horses. One of the buyers, owner of a neighboring amusement park called Jupiter’s Claim, is Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child actor who is revealed to have been a survivor of a TV sitcom set massacre.
One night, strange occurrences take place at the ranch. Power is interrupted, horses start to disappear, as well as unusual sounds, lights and objects in the sky. All of this spurs OJ and Keke to put up surveillance cameras around the ranch perimeter with the help of Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), a nosy Geek Squad-type tech salesman from a nearby electronics store. As the occurrences continue, it becomes clear that things are not what they seem at the ranch and at Jupiter’s Claim. I’ll stop there – saying any more will ruin all the fun!
NOPE is Jordan Peele’s 3rd film as writer, director, and producer. As in Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), NOPE follows Peele’s trajectory as an industry force in originality, unpredictability, and nuanced social/cultural commentary in horror (and now sci-fi). In contrast to other films in those genres, NOPE is a natural in giving us an organic balance of suspense, horror and (most notably) humor – a trifecta that rarely succeeds in any one film.
It’s easy to take it for granted coming from Peele who’s had major successes with his first two features. But NOPE kept me guessing all throughout, blending tonalities in such a manner that you don’t notice the shift from realism to terror, to the incredible. The diversity of his characters also adds to the film’s tonal equilibrium. He’s making a statement here that Black legacy in film goes as far back as Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion (1878) and that yes, black cowboys and ranchers do exist. Peele seems to comment also on the culture of spectacle and it’s monetization (Em’s ulterior motive is selling footage of what might be a UFO). As the characters watch a spectacle evolve, we are watching it with them through their lens and we can’t take our eyes off of it.
The cast is terrific. Daniel Kaluuya’s understated performance is superb. Keke Palmer is a joy to watch as Em, bringing comedic energy that is at once funny and touching. Brandon Perea steals some scenes himself and is hilarious to Em’s foil. Stephen Yeun is great as Jupe in a subtle but effective performance. It is also great to see veteran and great cult/character actor Keith David star in what I’m predicting will be another classic in his resume alongside John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and They Live! (1988). Michael Wincott is notable as well as a cranky old cinematographer.
I’ll be the first to say that the least you know about this film, the better the experience is in the theater. Shot with IMAX cameras, Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is Oscar-worthy in elucidating the beauty, vastness, and mundaneness of the western landscape. First-rate special effects are just right, never too much or overkill. Also worth noting are Michael Abels’ music and the excellent sound design. All these add to a remarkable theatre experience. With numerous memorable scenes on hand, clever direction and writing, relatable characters, great performances and a nuanced approach to suspense, comedy and horror, NOPE is an instant classic. Bring your kids (if they’re old enough – it’s rated R for violence and some gore). It’s a cinematic event.
Review by Vince Caro