It can’t be easy being Jordan Peele. His first movie came from nowhere to make a motza, land Oscar nominations and create an entirely new genre for your know-it-all mate to drop into pub chat. Now every time he makes another one of his social horrors, we expect the Earth: entertainment, a message and a dozen or so Easter eggs to chew over on Reddit.
Happily, the writer-director has the game to back it up. Us, his satisfyingly freaky, if sketchily-plotted follow-up to Get Out, was a slight backwards step, but his dusty new sci-fi horror is a belter.
If those first two movies riffed on the horror classics of the ’70s – Kubrick, Polanski, The Stepford Wives et al – Nope is amped-up on the science-fiction paranoia of the 1950s and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, as it unleashes a malevolent force or entity (that I’m absolutely not going to spoil) on a brother and sister in California’s remote Santa Clarita Valley.
Those siblings – Daniel Kaluuya’s taciturn OJ Haywood and his sparky sis Emerald (Hustler’s Keke Palmer, great here) – are Hollywood’s only Black horse trainers, whose business dealings with snooty white film people are complicated when their legendary animal wrangling dad (Keith David) is killed by a coin falling mysteriously from the sky.
Soon, it becomes apparent that something – or someone – is out there. With help from a lovelorn electrical showroom employee (Brandon Perea, a real find), they wire up a CCTV system in the hope of catching it on camera. It’ll be ‘the Oprah shot’ as they put it, for obvious reasons. Of course, they’ve radically underestimated what they, and their neighbour (Minari’s Steven Yeun), a former child star called Ricky Park who runs a Gold Rush-styled theme park across the valley, are up against.
For a film about how our hunger for spectacle is both innate and intrinsically self-destructive, it would hardly do to neglect the visuals, and Peele elegantly charts Nope’s incremental horrors in majestic widescreen. Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s IMAX camera regularly has us scanning the sky for signs, like Old Testament prophets.
Peele is not above the odd jump scare, either, though mostly Nope is unsettling rather than scary (and one shot, in particular, is seriously unsettling).
That creeping sense of the uncanny is underpinned by Michael Abels’s terrific orchestral score – all jittery strings and drums like earthquakes – and some magnificently loud and unearthly sound design. Lupita Nyong’o’s hellish croak in Us is officially no longer the most terrifying sound in the Peele canon.
It’s mostly unsettling rather than scary – and one shot is seriously unsettling
He’s a filmmaker, of course, who loves to pepper his movies with clues, fake outs and red herrings, leaving you to figure out what’s important and what isn’t. But his webs can be almost too opaque at times, and while a digression into a young Ricky’s traumatic, bloody experience on a TV sitcom is suitably disturbing, the thread connecting it with the main story is frustratingly thin.
By its final showdown, Nope is only a twirling six-shooter away from turning into one of cinema’s very few horror-westerns. That climactic sequence left me a bit cold after the eerie, uncomfortable brilliance of what comes before – the movie’s carefully crafted menace evaporates somewhat in the desert glare – and Peele’s endings remain a rare Achilles heel.
But what comes before is so overflowing with ideas – about the erasure of Black culture, our relationship with past traumas, and the underseen side of the moviemaking business – and so brimming with visual flair, it puts most other blockbusters in the shade. Spend two hours watching it and a couple more unpacking it – with or without that know-it-all mate.
In US theaters Jul 22 and UK cinemas Aug 12.