Something’s hovering over Otis Haywood’s (Keith David, Barbershop) ranch in SoCal’s parched Santa Clarita Valley. Otis comes from a long line of horsemen and is a noted animal wrangler for TV and film. His son OJ (David Kaluuya, Get Out) works beside him and his stallions. That thing in the sky looks like it’s swooping things up and propelling things down. They better be careful…
Jordan Peele has twisted the horror genre in several directions. In this instance, he veers off the path a bit, spending an inordinate amount of time setting up moments of dread. Yes, there is some gore. Yes, bodies fly up and things are hurled down. Yes, some people are maimed or sucked away. But not in a well-measured out way.
Clocking in at 2h 10m, some may wish that Peele’s script was more taut and the footage a bit tighter (editor Nicholas Mansour, Us). That each moment was connected to something vital. Instead, there is lot of space in between the beats. You spend more time waiting to be scared and shocked than being scared and shocked. And those shocks are accentuated by very loud sounds (sound designer Johnnie Burn). Noises that sometimes overshadow the visual effects.
And who is causing all the terror is never that clear, though their intentions are. OJ: “Ghosts out there acting all territorial.” The unidentified flying object that causes all the fright looks like a prop from a 1960s “Twilight Zone” episode—or a round casserole dish with a lid. In ways that’s campy and old school. In ways it doesn’t hold a candle to other space oddities that have hovered over earth in movies like Arrival.
OJ and his overly rambunctious and slightly annoying younger sister Emerald (Keke Palmer, Akeelah and the Bee) hatch a scheme to try and document the UFO. A helpful and kinetic electronics store clerk (Brandon Perea, American Insurrection) and a nearly retired and very mystical cinematographer (Michael Wincott, Westworld) join their team.
Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun, Minari), a ringmaster, runs a nearby family-themed cowboy park named “Jupiter’s Claim.” There are clashes between the Haywoods and the park folks. Jupe’s beef with the UFO is murky. The Haywood’s prime impetus for charting the mysterious object is monetizing their 15 seconds of reality fame. That’s an error. Vengeance would have been a far more primal and compelling motive.
Debates will rage about the red herring storytelling, lapses and effects. But no one will argue about the spectacle. The Santa Clarita Valley setting is a gorgeous and biblical canvas. Taupe colored sands and hills. Sparse vegetation. An ever-present sun. The impressive, photogenic geography is as iconic as the Durango, Mexico setting in John Houston’s classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The moments when OJ gallops on horseback over dusty terrain are indelible. And though the UFO itself may be dinky, visions of victims being sucked into it and churned up like ground beef will mess with viewers’ heads.
When you hire cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Dunkirk) you know the visuals will be captured in perfect lighting, framed to perfection and composed like a painting. When you enlist production designer Ruth De Jong (Twin Peaks) the sets will be evocative. Give costume designer Alex Bovaird (The White Lotus) purview over the clothes and they will be fly, like Yuen’s dazzling red cowboy outfit. You can count on composer Michael Abels (Bad Education) to create a dramatic musical score and rely on Stevie Wonder tunes to add verve.
Lead actor Daniel Kaluuya masterfully rides to the rescue on his steed like he’s a matinee idol. Laconic. Stoic. Steely. His facial expressions and eye rolls convey more thought and emotion than the script intended. Palmer is suitably energetic, but her irritating role does her a disservice. Also, in one crucial scene, she jumps on a motorcycle and rides away like a Grand Prix racer, when nothing has ever indicated she has that skill set. However, Kaluuya and Palmer have chemistry and their sibling banter feels real. Yeun is suitably tormented as a man suffering from boyhood trauma. Perea’s animated performance provides comic relief.
There’s a better film hiding in this extravagant cowboy hor/mys/sci-fi. Peele’s followers and horror fans may ignore the lulls and remember the thrills. Others may feel frustrated waiting and waiting for something to happen. Does Nope deserve the patience it requires? Viewers will decide.