Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
OJ Haywood (Oscar-winner Daniel Kaluuya) is certain something strange is going on in the sky above his family’s horse ranch. Something not of this world. But he needs proof. So together with his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), they devise a plan to get whatever it is captured on film. By any means necessary.
Before going any further, I must highlight right from the jump that NOPE is nothing like Writer/Director Jordan Peele’s previous films, Get Out nor Us. Where those films were interested in race, identity, assimilation and examining the contemporary experience of African-Americans, NOPE is at once simpler and denser. It is about the pursuit of the American Dream, a treatise on the price we pay for fame, glory and obsession, and has a dash or two of Hollywood satire added for good measure. Some will call it Spielbergian, though I found it had more in common with a high-budget episode of The Twilight Zone (with the addition of Peele’s dark sense of humour). So adjust your expectations immediately before venturing into this latest nightmarish journey.
Apologies if that sounds like I am prepping you for disappointment. On the contrary, I think NOPE might be Peele’s most cinematic film to date. It feels like a culmination of everything he has learned, absorbed and been inspired by – the kind of film that could have only been created by a true Auteur and Visionary. There is something special in every single frame he and his behind the scenes team have composed here, whether it be an all-timer “shower” scene that puts Carrie to shame, an homage to the electric bikes of Akira, or those terrifying moments with the Wacky Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Men that the marketing has delighted in highlighting. Hoyte Van Houtema (Christopher Nolan’s go-to Cinematographer) captures the sprawling vistas, the isolated dirt roads and the breathless thrills that fill those frames brilliantly. His IMAX footage – specifically within the Third Act – is next-level and some of the best ever conceived for the format. I was in complete awe any time the Aspect Ratios flipped, and reveled in that feeling of getting the air knocked out of me every single time. Combined with the exquisite sound design, which elevates the horror elements dramatically and more disgustingly, NOPE permanently re-conceives our definition of what makes a Blockbuster.
The Main Cast Peele has put together is great, with Palmer stealing scenes left and right from everyone and Kaluuya delivering some of his most nuanced, low-key work to date. They work off each other well, and have a brother/sister comradery that feels lived in and real. And yes, the way they say “No”, “Nope” and other variations is simply hysterical. Brandon Perea is very good as the conspiracy nut Angel, and Toronto’s own Michael Wincott is wonderfully unhinged as a man obsessed with getting the “impossible shot”. They each bring something unique to the table and make their character’s experiences riveting.
Where NOPE falters for me is in its Script and Editing. It feels looser than Peele’s previous films, to its detriment, and lacks how razor sharp they were. Steven Yeun’s entire Arc seems to be deliberately obfuscated, to the point of including a truly horrific and squeamish backstory that has barely any effect on his motivations in the present day. It is just far too simplistic for its own good (profiting off tragedy = bad?). Far be it for me to question Peele’s thinking, but I feel like it may have been able to be further excised in favour of a leaner running time (which is a shame because Yeun’s acting is rock solid). Smaller Supporting Characters who get a line or two feel like unnecessary distractions, title cards are just kind of there and the way some of the CGI has been integrated into the Film is nowhere near as polished as it should be in 2022.
Flaws aside, I still think NOPE is a good film and one hell of a wild ride. Peele has upgraded his directorial status to full-blown Auteur with this Project, crafting a breathless nightmare of thrills and confusion that feels like a genuine evolution of his craft. The way he employs Sound is incredible and the way he and Van Hoytema use IMAX cameras to their greatest potential is truly a thing of beauty. Alongside a terrific performance from Kaluuya and another perversion of a classic song, NOPE is a must-see event. Much like Top Gun earlier this summer, make sure to watch on the biggest, loudest screen you can find.
Universal Pictures Canada release NOPE in theatres on Friday, July 22, 2022.