Jordan Peele, meet M. Night Shyamalan.
The “Sixth Sense” director was once the toast of Hollywood before his films devolved into tortured “gotcha” exercises. Shyamalan has never been the same, creatively speaking, even if he occasionally teases a return to form a la 2016’s “Split.”
Can we expect a similar arc with Peele following his third film, “Nope?”
Even the best directors have clunkers on their resume – Steven Spielberg’s “1941” may be the best example. It’s how badly Peele orchestras his UFO thriller that should give even his greatest fans pause.
Oscar-winner Daniel Kaluuya stars as O.J. Haywood, son of a Hollywood-approved horse farmer at Haywood Ranch. His pappy (Keith David, in a micro-cameo that screams for more screen time) supplied horses for various TV and movie projects over the years. Now, the son is trying to follow his lead at the horse farm, aided by his headstrong sister, Emerald Haywood, or Em (Keke Palmer, in a grating performance).
A curious cloud collection above their ranch interrupts that quest.
There’s something peculiar in the sky formations, and it forces the Haywoods to consider its connection to both a family tragedy and their immediate survival.
That’s all audiences need to know going into “Nope” beyond the obvious. It’s a UFO thriller, full stop. Peele proved he could expertly arrange a film’s horror elements with “Get Out” and “Us,” so shifting to science fiction felt like a lateral move, talent wise.
Something sizable got lost in the shift.
Let’s start with the Haywoods. Kaluuya earned an Oscar for his work in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and his intensity is a welcome asset for any film. Or should we say “most” movies?
He’s a dullard here, moping around his farm and barely connecting with sister Em, who overacts as if to compensate for her brother’s charisma vacuum.
You’re rooting for their survival, of course, but barely by genre standards.
The story itself offers a slow-burn template without the details that keep us engaged. The father-son dynamic hinted at in the opening never blooms, nor is there much dramatic tension tied to their horse business.
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The most arresting part of “Nope” has little to do with the actual story. We see, via flashbacks, how a cute animal went wild and destroyed the set of a ’90s TV show. It’s a terrifying sequence showing Peele at his instinctual best. And you could remove every second of it from the film and it wouldn’t change a thing.
“Nope” doesn’t lurch into “Worst Movie of the Year” material until the third act. The characters’ motivations prove elusive, as does any real sense of danger as a flying saucer enters the frame over the amusement park … and elsewhere. The finale drags on, and on, and the pay off is cartoonish and maddening.
Just make this movie stop. Please.
Secondary characters offer some respite, but even they are poorly integrated into the film. Veteran actor Michael Wincott suggests a subplot worthy of our inspection, but his character’s choices make no sense when it counts the most.
“Walking Dead” alum Steven Yeun gets a curious role, one of many intriguing elements with little emotional payoff. Add in the curious images of a black jockey and nods to the first moving picture ever recorded. Fascinating and maddening all at once.
Peele helped pioneer a new wave of socially conscious, uniformly progressive horror. Previous directors used the genre to send both chills and a message. Think George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” the 1968 shocker that explored race relations in a way no other film could.
“Get Out” scorched liberal white guilt, among other contemporary issues, so effectively even liberal white film critics sang its praises. “Us” delivered a more complicated message about culture, class and social mobility. The scares weren’t as intense, but it proved a worthy follow-up to his breakthrough debut. Who doesn’t crave love letters to the horror genre, so often neglected by serious critics.
Neither film wallowed in its messaging. Peele shrewdly kept the story, and scares, top of mind. It’s something other artists routinely fail to do, and why each new Peele movie feels like an event.
“Nope,” for better and worse, offers little to any deeper meaning except one chilling note. Peele may not be the auteur we imagined.
Hit or Miss: “Nope” is more than one of the year’s worst films. It’s a sign Jordan Peele’s narrative instincts are betraying him … and us.