At the climax of the most imaginatively disgusting scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Clennon looks at the disembodied, inverted head that has just sprouted spider legs and mutters: “You gotta be f***ing kidding!” The title of the new film from Jordan Peele is used in similar fashion on more than one occasion. Nope. This is just not happening.
There is plenty to disbelieve. The bizarre prologue — a sliver of sub-Michael Haneke more chilling than anything else in the film — treats the aftermath of a brutal attack by a celebrity chimpanzee. Nope. A few moments later, we watch as OJ Haywood jnr (Daniel Kaluuya), who works on a ranch that trains horses for TV and movies, copes with his father being killed by a nickel that has fallen apparently from nowhere. Nope. The mystery really kicks off when OJ and his sister Emerald (straight-up MVP Keke Palmer) become aware that a cloud on the horizon has remained stationary for days. Nope.
There would be value to the film if it merely assembled such freaky singularities into a busy anthology. Peele has, however, a lot more on his mind. He may never again make a film so elegantly structured as Get Out (who has?), but the ferment of interlocking ideas here is so diverting it hardly matters that the film is more at home to a meander than steady ascent. Coming in the wake of Disney+’s surprise critical hit Prey — the Predator sequel you didn’t know you wanted — Nope again works alien invasion tropes in with those of the western. Kaluuya moves through the increasingly bizarre action with a rocky stoicism that makes Clint Eastwood seem like Jim Carrey. He loses a gig after a horse reacts badly to an intrusive crew member. He visits a former child actor named Jupe (Steven Yuen) who now runs a western theme park and considers the notion of selling him the ranch. Then weird alterations cause the siblings to wonder if there may be something unsettling in the heavens.
Peele’s own screenplay is punctured with fruitful wormholes. The art and politics of cinema are under constant examination. CJ and Emerald (or “Em”, the names echoing both the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz and Dorothy Gale’s Aunt Em) are proud that their business is “the only black-owned horse trainers in Hollywood”. That conversation allows engagement with the complicated relationship between black people and American art forms such as the western. Later stages of the film are much concerned with “shooting”, but here cameras rather than Colt .45s are being trained on the apparent bad guys. Is Peele pondering how the camera, so often revealing brutality against black citizens, is now among the most powerful of hand-held weapons?
The cast sell every turn with different varieties of effort
We learn that the jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s famous assembly of linked images from the 19th century — a key precursor of cinema — was an unnamed African-American man. There is throughout a fascination with retro technologies: a hardened cinematographer uses a hand-cranked camera; Emerald dances to vinyl records played on old-school hi-fi separates. A thin veneer appears to separate them from the machinery of the pioneer days.
The Christmas-pudding approach, stirring tasty ideas randomly about the mixture, is not always satisfactory. It transpires that the prologue relates to a horrifying incident from Jupe’s time as a juvenile actor — a subplot that seems culled from another, hugely promising film.
The wider package is, however, so elegantly carried off one scarcely feels the impulse to complain. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography relishes the muted deserts of Southern California and the churning skies above. Michael Abels, Peele’s regular composer, oscillates between sinister throbs and winking parodies of classic western themes. The cast sell every turn with different varieties of effort. Emerald, as fiery and impulsive as OJ is flinty and unmovable, takes on the quality of an irrepressible sprite, binding the adventure together with an energy that allows no feeble compromise. It would feel wrong to deny the hard-working Keke Palmer your appreciation. Why would you do so? Nope is many things, but, most of all, it is something else.