Black-owned ranch pitted against an unsettling UFO
The best, eeriest parts of director Jordan’s Peele’s third feature, “Nope,” are as good as anything in “Get Out” or “Us,” and they’re very different from either of those earlier triumphs of imagination. This one is a three-fifths triumph, which means whatever you want that to mean. To me, it means go.
It’s a UFO movie with a peculiar, stop-and-start rhythm, telling a story set in a geographically remote realm of film and TV industry outsiders. Most of “Nope” takes place on a horse ranch northeast of Santa Clarita, California, where the skies — contrary to the old cowboy song “Home on the Range” — are cloudy all day. One cloud in particular, hanging over a ridge, doesn’t appear to have moved in days. Months, even. Something’s in there, and it likes to come out now and then, fly around, check things out, and vacuum up a human or animal specimen or two.
Haywood Hollywood Horses is the name of a family business of animal wranglers hired for movie, commercial and TV shoots. It’s a Black-owned ranch with a legitimate secret movie history: OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) are the great-great-great grandchildren, we’re told, of the Bahamian jockey who rode the horse in Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic study “A Horse in Motion.”
The story begins with OJ and Emerald’s father (Keith David) on his white horse, under a sunny sky. Suddenly, objects metal and otherwise start falling from the clouds. A single
key on a keychain sticks out of a horse’s hide. The rider lies on the ground, bloody and near death.
From there, “Nope” establishes its small posse of humans who must match wits with whatever’s up there. A Fry’s Electronics geek-squad guy, Angel (Brandon Perea), installs some surveillance camera equipment for the Heywoods, and soon enough he learns he’s not the only one who suspects the threat of a UFO. Not far from the ranch, an Old West fairground is run by a former child star (Steven Yeun), whose claim to fame is co-starring on the sitcom we see brutally disrupted in the prologue.
How these folks respond to the visitor from another world leads to plenty of odd, off-kilter laughs and sidewinding scares in roughly equal measure. The saucer and alien glimpses, sparing at first, are truly magical. Peele and his crack cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar”) show us flashes, darting glimpses, of a saucer-like disc with a giant hole in the middle.
Palmer’s brash, motormouthed Emerald dominates the human element. It’s a forceful, often funny
turn, though Peele’s screenplay feels a draft away from fleshing these people out and sharpening the interactions to full advantage. Not to play meddling studio head, but “Nope” would’ve benefited from a 15-minute trim, simply to give the pacing a push when it counts. As is, the various strands of patronized Hollywood castoffs, from Yeun’s traumatized former child star to the Haywoods’ long-standing, teeth-gritting dealings with the white establishment, operate as independent, slightly tangled ideas in a movie that’s almost terrific and occasionally is terrific.
The best of its otherworldly images, sounds and shudders stick in the craw the morning after.
I’ve already seen too many films this year that can’t make the same claim.
MPAA rating: R (for violence, bloody images and strong language)
Running time: 2:15
How to watch: In theaters