Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Nope is another Jordan Peele slow burn, and you sometimes wish it would hurry up a little. Peele is gifted at dragging out menace—he knows just the way the camera should slowly move across a figure in a landscape to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, which is something many directors never get. But there are moments in his latest feature that beg for acceleration, which would be especially useful because Nope is less idea-ful than his previous features.
Get Out was an elegant and uproarious metaphor on race as filtered through a Rod Serling genre exercise, and Us took bigger and crazier aim at what it meant to be “Americans” (that word dropping with a particularly loud clang at one point). There may be an elaborate series of metaphors lurking in Nope—certainly people have gone online to propose them—but it strikes me as much more a straight-up monster movie, albeit with original touches. This straightforwardness is both appealing (the delicious opening hour is full of what-the-hell-is-this-about? energy) and disappointing, as the movie gets towards its climax and it becomes clear that this is, in fact, all there is.
The flat-out oddness of Nope‘s world is promising: A horse-training business for Hollywood, located in a lonely gulch outside L.A., run by a brother and sister (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) who are descended from the jockey photographed on the horse in Edweard Muybridge’s famous series of motion photographs—the nascent form of motion pictures. (More like Edweird Muybridge, in this circumstance, right?) Nearby is a very unlikely Western theme park run by a former child actor (Steven Yeun) notorious for having survived a murderous rampage by a chimpanzee on the set of a sitcom, an event glimpsed in the film’s opening sequence. They all see UFOs in the vicinity, and the brother and sister, reluctantly teaming up with a minimum-wage tech guy (Brandon Perea), are determined to get photographic evidence of the visitors.
Peele gets some funny Hollywood detail, a few evocative night skies, and the pop-culture stuff. (The movie’s most Tarantino-esque bit is Yeun’s memory of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch on the subject of the chimp freakout, which apparently featured a dialed-in Chris Kattan—how could it not?) I don’t entirely understand why Kaluuya’s character must be so taciturn and grumpy, except that he is a variation on the terse cowboy hero that the movie will play with; if so, that’s fine, but not a whole lot of fun to watch, especially with such an inventive actor. The chimpanzee thing undoubtedly fits into whatever Peele is saying about the media circus in which all of human life exists today (Nope makes a lot of references to seeing and watching and how these actions might be life-and-death issues), but the sequence of the monkey rampage is so strange and vividly imagined that for me it overshadowed the less dynamic alien business.
About the slow burn. There’s a specific moment, during Yeun’s outdoor show, where an audience has gathered for a spectacle, that struck me as the moment the movie could speed up, could begin ramping up the pace as we fall into the momentum that will take us through the rest of the picture. But it doesn’t—even though Yeun is a huckster and this scene is show business, after all. It just dawdles along and then we get a big special-effects sequence and then we dawdle along again. There’s something indulgent about it, a miscalculation—both Yeun’s self-made impresario and Jordan Peele seem to be misreading the crowd. There are big images (and funny ones) in the movie’s climax, even if I wasn’t always clear on the logic of people doing the things they were doing. But it seems to me that this slow burn, as it extended through the finale, served only to point out the problem with pace. If what you’re doing is ultimately just a monster movie and you’d like to cover that up a little, it’s a good idea to go faster at the end.
August 26, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.