Many a time, film has looked outwards for inspiration, drawing not on our lived experience, but from the wild expanses of human imagination. Imagination has allowed us to entertain the most provocative of horrors, set in fantastic realms or far-flung worlds. Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope, reminds us that what we tend to fear is not so different from what is right at our doorstep. The natural world, so to speak, can be just as frightening as any alien oddity.
Nope grips you in its opening shot and frames the narrative from a thematic standpoint. Blood stains decorate what appears to be a living room. The culprit? An out-of-control chimpanzee, drenched in the blood of its victims and scanning the space with its deadpan eyes. At this point we do not know where this is, how this started and who is implicated. But we know that we are a part of it. The tension reaches its peak when the chimp locks eyes with ours, creating, if only briefly, the feeling that there is nothing separating us from what is happening on screen.
Nope is a film that explores the nature of truth and complicity in filmmaking, whilst simultaneously telling the story of two Hollywood horse trainers dealing with a mysterious threat in the sky.
One of the primary questions the film encourages us to ponder is whether a photographic image is synonymous with fact. When OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) meet with a production team for a shoot, they reveal that their great, great, great grandfather was the black jockey that appeared in “the very first assembly of photographs to create a motion picture”. Despite their ancestor’s key role in the early days of cinema technology, not one of the attendees (most of which are familiar with Eadweard Muybridge’s work) know or appear to have heard of the identity of the jockey. The production team’s disinterest in learning about this individual (their static expressions comically framed) only serves to further deny the jockey from taking up his place in cinematic history. What is fascinating about this scene is that it highlights an apparent disconnect between the reality of the image and reality itself. The jockey may take the centre of the frame, but there is no guarantee that society will acknowledge his existence beyond his photochemical imprint.
This idea that the cinematic medium cannot provide us with the full picture, and yet still exert such an influence is reflected in the behaviour of the sustained threat that torments the community of Agua Dulce. For a significant portion of the film, it makes its presence known without revealing itself, devouring members of the community and spitting out their non-biological remains. The fact that the marketing for Nope avoided revealing what this threat is, and focused instead on the characters’ reactions, seems to me to have been a decision based less in avoiding spoilers and more in stressing what this threat represents: the elusive nature of cinematic truth.
The question of whether the filmmaker can be detached from the object being filmed, and thus be exempt from accusations of complicity, is the other intellectual focal point of the film. The film eases us into this area of contemplation through the actions of the character Jupe (Steven Yeun). Having survived the incident involving the crazed chimpanzee, Jupe takes hold of his past trauma and churns it into profit. He runs an amusement park that features his likeness on signs and in the form of one of those big, floating balloons that hovered over Times Square in Spider-man 1. His office is decorated with memorabilia that calls the incident to mind, and it is at this point of the film that we learn the identity of the chimp – Gordy, the star ofa sitcom gone wrong. Jupe must have grown tired of selling the same story (it is debatable whether his recollection is even trustworthy), as at the mid-point of Nope, he introduces the parkgoers to a new attraction, which just so happens to be the mysterious threat from the sky. This is a threat Jupe cannot possibly believe to understand, and yet he turns it into spectacle anyway, evidently undeterred by the possible consequences.
Complicity in filmmaking is also alluded to through the character of Antlers Holst, but not in the same way. Whereas Jupe was indifferent to the consequences of his work, Holst evokes complicity through ignorance.
Before coming to realise the certain historical figure Holst represents, I had found his character to be peculiarly out of touch, almost like a spoof of the “serious filmmaker”. Played by Michael Wincott, Holst maintains a set expression and is not one for small talk. He says few lines in the film, but when he does speak, it is usually something profound. The Haywood horse trainers, OJ and Emerald, manage to convince him to work with them, enticing him not with fame, not with money, but with the prospect of being behind the “impossible shot”. Holst is clearly shown to be a man of talent, and there is no indication that his work is driven by anything other than a passion for his craft. He is also intensely individual, a characteristic we see in a short segment of Holst going through footage of aquatic life in his studio, and during the final act, when he unexpectedly goes rogue and tries to capture footage of the entity alone.
Holst is not necessarily a stand in for a single individual; he could be an amalgam of various historical individuals that Peele wants to call attention to. But what surprises me is, at the time of writing, there is not a single mention on the internet of anyone picking up on the similarities between Holst and the controversial German director, Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl is known for both the good and bad of filmmaking in the Nazi era. She is noted for Triumph of the Will, which glorified the Nazi cause through selective editing and camera angles, and Olympia, a masterwork of cinematography that, alongside documenting the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, rebelliously gave the African-American sprinter, Jesse Owens, the same loving treatment. While the question of Riefenstahl’s involvement with the Nazis is hotly contested, she had always maintained her innocence, famously describing her work as “film-verité”. Like Riefenstahl, Holst is independent, and like Riefenstahl, Holst is only interested in elevating what already exists in the natural world. Not to mention that Riefenstahl’s last work was Underwater Impressions, a documentary celebrating the beauty of sea life. The way Holst reaches his end is most likely Peele’s statement on Riefenstahl, which, without spoiling what happens in the film, seems to suggest that she was her own worst enemy.
This is a film that, for all of its thought-provoking ideas, is nonetheless horror. As such, audiences go in expecting to be scarred, and the film achieves that. But I disagree with those that view Peele’s conservative treatment of the entity as a horror technique. The film’s threat does take time to reveal itself and there are moments that play with our expectations, but I do not believe that Peele wants our minds to wander too much. Peele reveals enough to satisfy the curious spectator, but he is not deliberately leaving things to our imagination to heighten our fear response. The entity escapes imagination; we do eventually see it, and in considerable detail, but it is never entirely clear what we are seeing. What is it made out of? How does it do the things it does? We do not know and Peele does not want us to know, in keeping with what the entity is intended to represent.
In addition to representing the elusive nature of cinematic truth, OJ comes to realise that the entity behaves much like an animal on Earth. Does Peele want to instil in us a fear of the animal kingdom? I doubt it, but there is a method to his madness. Just as the scene involving the jockey correlates to the real-life issue of black representation in cinema, the entity works to ground our analysis of the film in reality, particularly in what has historically occurred within the film industry. Hence, the Riefenstahl connection is not arbitrary. This is a person who pioneered cinema, and yet found herself intertwined with one of the evilest regimes in history.
Nope is a film that balances escapism with an exploration of the power of the moving image. It is dense with ideas, so much so that I feel I have only touched the surface. But does a film that has a lot to say always correspond to greatness? I have no doubt this will be worked into university-level curriculums, given its effectiveness in getting us to think about social responsibility in filmmaking, as well as deeper concepts such as cinematic ontology. Ultimately, though, Nope is a film that is more thought-provoking than it is illuminating.
Viewed at Cinemax, Europa SC, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia Written by Ashley Roohizadegan