‘No’ review: In Jordan Peele’s uplifting new horror fable, every moment counts
“What did you see?”
“Something above the clouds that is tall.”
“Big.” – Exchange between sister and brother in “No”.
Jordan Peele’s masterfully daring, wickedly funny, downright wacky sci-fi horror fable “Nope” is a classic example of a bold, original film that pays homage to a seemingly endless stream of great films and yet is more than the sum of its parts.
When two siblings on a remote strip of land band together and hatch an ingenious and definitely crazy plan to defend themselves against an invading force, it’s reminiscent of “Signs.” When a mad genius with a singular mission is willing to sacrifice everything in pursuit of taking his life, he reminds us of Quint from “Jaws.” When a supporting character tells a gruesome, cringe-worthy story from the past that makes you wince and laugh at the same time, it’s vaguely reminiscent of the Santa Claus story in “Gremlins” and the infamous “golden watch” story in “Pulp Fiction”. ”
There are other moments that evoke memories of “The Shining”, “Ghostbusters”, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Poltergeist” and at least half a dozen Other films, and yet writer-director-co-producer Peele has once again delivered fresh, darkly beautiful work. Every slice of dialogue, every dramatic beat, every jaw-dropping shot, even the tiniest detail in production design – it all feels integral, it all adds up, it all means something. It’s the kind of movie where your bathroom breaks should be right before the movie starts and right after it’s over, because if you miss even three minutes, you’re missing a lot.
Daniel Kaluuya has an incredible talent for playing characters who convey so much in the lowest tones and then can explode in an instant, and he’s perfectly cast here as OJ Haywood (yes, his name is OJ, and it raises eyebrows when people first meet him), who runs the only black-owned horse ranch in Hollywood, a generational business dating back to the origins of movies. OJ is a 21st century cowboy who is more comfortable with his beloved horses than most, but he is determined to keep the ranch running even as he faces financial difficulties.
Not that he gets much help from his funny, fickle, extremely friendly but not particularly driven younger sister Emerald (Keke Palmer in one of her best performances), who has a penchant for showing up late for parties. film or TV shoots and would rather have him drinking and playing old vinyl records than helping out on the ranch.
When OJ spots a mysterious object in the clouds above the ranch — something that appears to be alien in nature and capable of great destruction — Em says it may be their “Oprah moment.” They’ll capture anything on video as definitive proof of life beyond Earth, sell it for millions of dollars, and become rich and famous.
Suffice to say, everything in the clouds has other ideas.
With esteemed cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (a Christopher Nolan regular who shot “Interstellar,” “Dunkirk” and “Tenet”) providing some of the most spectacular location visuals of the year, “Nope” alternates between exquisite sets with little dialogue and loads of genuine scares, and some fantastic interior scenes crackling with great lines.
Steven Yeun gives a deviously effective performance as Ricky “Skirt” Park, a former child star who now runs a California Gold Rush theme park just down the road from Heywood Ranch. Ricky’s experiences as a child actor on a goofy 1990s sitcom, including a moment immortalized in a (fictionalized) “Saturday Night Live” skit, are among the most twisted scenes in recent memory. Brandon Perea has a Dave Franco vibe as Angel, who works at a big-box electronics store, helps OJ and Emerald set up an elaborate camera system on the ranch and somehow becomes their uninvited ally. He’s the key to comic relief.
Then there’s the great actor Michael Wincott (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “The Crow,” “Strange Days”), whose angular features and gravelly voice have been put to good use in many villainous roles, turning in a bizarrely endearing performance as Antlers Horst, a renowned target who agrees to join the ad hoc film crew because why not, he could achieve the crowning achievement of his career with an immortal “Magic Hour” shot.
We don’t want to say much more here, other than praising Peele for crafting an exhilarating film filled with memorable characters. (Even the smallest roles are played to perfection by the likes of Keith David as the father of OJ and Emerald; the one and only Donna Mills as the Hollywood diva; and Barbie Ferreira from “Euphoria,” who plays Angel’s co-worker and spins maybe six lines gold.) Whether Peele invokes Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” or uses those ridiculous inflatable tube man figures in the most creative way, we’re in pop culture heaven. With “Get Out” and “Us” and now “Nope”, Peele is firmly established as one of the most exciting and innovative filmmakers of his generation. His movies are now officially “events,” like the early works of Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalan and Quentin Tarantino. We can’t wait to see what he does next.