There was a time, about 20 years ago, when M. Night Shyamalan was the hottest name in Hollywood thanks to a run of inventive original thrillers. The Sixth Sense shot the writer/director into the stratosphere with critics and audiences, and he found further smash hits with Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002). It is the latter film that sprung to mind recently, when I caught up with Jordan Peele’s 2022 thriller Nope. There are a lot of similarities between both films and directors.
Like Shyamalan, Peele made a huge impact with his race-focused horror film Get Out (2017). His follow-up Us (2019), like Unbreakable, was perhaps a little less adored by critics but was still a commercial hit. Now Nope seems a close match for Signs. It tells a story of horses being abducted from a ranch, and strange objects being seen in the night sky, much like Signs began with crop circles and alien sightings. Where the films differ, however, is that Signs marked a slow diminishing of returns for Shyamalan, while Nope continues Peele’s winning streak of smart, surprising, and hugely effective thrillers.
Horse trainer Otis Haywood (Keith David) dies suddenly on his ranch, after a coin falls from the sky and pierces his skull. Six months later his children O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em (Keke Palmer) struggle to keep the business going while their horses have been going missing. One night the electricity supply to their ranch goes haywire and they see an unidentified flying object in the sky. In order to earn enough money to keep the ranch afloat, O.J. and Em decide to capture an image of the UFO at all costs.
Nope is a superb new film for Peele, and – just like Us demonstrated a firm genre shift from Get Out, this third feature presents yet another step into new territory. Precisely what is moving through the skies above the Haywood Ranch is best experienced without any foreknowledge; suffice to say it is not what most viewers will expect. Visually the film is tremendous, and after the claustrophobic settings of Peele’s earlier works it is wonderful to see such a wide, big-screen environment for the third time around. Hoyte van Hoytema is one of Hollywood’s most accomplished cinematographers, and he does outstanding work here. In terms of imagery, Nope honestly feels more like Spielberg than Shyamalan. It is one of the best-looking films of its year, particularly in its striking night scenes.
Kaluuya does a great job in a very different sort of role to his one in Get Out, and he continues to be one of the best in the business for frightened glances. Keke Palmer contrasts wonderfully as the energetic, upbeat Em, but in truth the film’s best asset is Michael Wincott as the obsessive cinematographer who joins the Haywoods’ quest. Wincott has been taken for granted by Hollywood for literally decades – it is immensely gratifying to see him get such a wonderful role here, satirising many filmmakers at once while never parodying any specifically.
Nope is beautifully paced, and packed with unexpected subplots, character quirks, and idiosyncrasies. For me, this makes three-for-three for Jordan Peele, with each of his films its own distinct success but also showing off a single, immensely smart and creative artist at work.
Nope is now available on home video and online rental.