An eerie, slow-burning film about violence, obsession, and the idea of becoming a spectacle.
A review by Kate O’Brien.
NOPE was released in July of 2022 and the film was directed by Jordan Peele.
I watched NOPE for the first time a few days ago and while it is a great choice of film to talk about during #spookyseason, this film is one that will stay with me for a long time.
If you’re a new reader here at Katelovesliterature.com, you may not know that despite pushing through and watching anyways, I am not the biggest fan of horror.
I used to say that as a blanket statement – “I don’t like horror.”
I’ve realised that this isn’t true. Horror intrigues me. I can like horror and often do, the problem is that I am jumpy and squeamish. I hate blood, the sight of it makes me nauseous and so the idea of many horror films make me squirm, however if I am interested enough in a concept, I have found ways to get over my fears and watch anyways. I will begrudgingly admit that despite covering my eyes during certain scenes, I usually enjoy the films I watch overall and I am often filled with many thoughts.
NOPE is a film that I really enjoyed. I was assured that there are only two bloody/gory scenes that I would be fairly warned about and the rest of the film is a slow, suspense-filled, slow-burn.
This is true. While there are some tense scenes, it is not a gore fest and there is only one jump-scare that was quite mild, and that is coming from me. So, if you’re like me and you hate blood but you’re curious about this film, I would recommend it. The first scene that I had to look away from happens very early on, when a character gets injured. The second scene that I had to look away from happens much later on. This movie is separated into acts with title chapters so – spoiler alert-
When the Gordy section begins, I would recommend covering one’s eyes as this section opens with a long-panning, quite graphic, gory scene, but once this scene has passed, that is it. There is no more gore or shocking injuries for the rest of the movie. The third-act actually moves at a very quick pace and it even felt like an action movie at times, but I am getting ahead of myself.
All of my thoughts and opinions, and interpretations are my own, so as with any film, I may have a completely different take on it compared to someone else’s, but I would suggest that this is a film that is talking about violence, and an audience’s obsession with violence and how we can make a spectacle out of things if we don’t respect them enough.
Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer star as OJ and Emerald, siblings who come together after their father dies. Their father, Otis Haywood Sr., taught his children the family business of training horses for films and television. Otis is on a horse when a mysterious coin falls from the sky, hits him in the eye and kills him. OJ and Emerald are grieving together and trying to keep the business going after their father’s death, but their family ranch has become home to an unknown presence. OJ and Emerald experience strange power outages and they also see something – they don’t know what, in the sky. The plot follows OJ and Emerald as they set out to capture video evidence of this mysterious object in the sky that appears to be eating things, including people.
I think that this film has done something really interesting, because in my opinion, this film has used alien film tropes to its advantage in order to explore various themes. As I was watching the film and trying to figure out what I think it means, there came a moment when I said, “this is an alien film.”
In some ways, it is an alien film and I’ve even heard that some people interpreted NOPE to stand for “Not of planet earth”, but according to Peele, this is coincidental. It is an alien film in the sense that the main protagonists are attempting to capture footage of of extraterrestrial beings on camera, to prove that the strange happenings that are occurring at their home are actually real, and in the process of doing this, they find themselves in danger, but I think that this film is more than an alien film. I think this is a film that uses alien plot point tropes to tell a bigger story.
I want to talk about the setting. This film is set out in the middle of nowhere on the Haywood ranch. There are some absolutely stunning visuals in this movie. There are big, sprawling, panning shots that show beautiful star filled skies, sprawling mountains, and a horizon that stretches and stretches. The Haywood’s house is a perfect backdrop for a horror film. It is a big house on a hill on a ranch out in the middle of nowhere. It is beautiful and eerie all at once. It is hard to get to and more importantly, hard to get away from. I would also argue that there are some gothic elements to this film. A very common trope in gothic literature is the idea that home becomes a place of danger rather than a place where one finds safety. In NOPE, the Haywood’s childhood home becomes the sight of odd occurrences and instead of feeling safe there, the Haywood’s are now at the mercy of whatever is in the sky. That is, they are at its mercy until they figure out what it is, and how to tame it.
In films, lighting and sound can be used in really impactful, evocative ways and in this film, the light is very important. Whenever something unsettling is about to happen, the power goes out. Lights go out, any music that is playing trails off in a rather jarring way that it is unsettling to the ear. When the thing in the sky is gone, the lights come back on and this is a signal to the audiences that our protagonists are safe – for now.
I want to talk about what I think the film’s themes are. I would argue that the film’s themes are the ideas of watching and looking, the idea of how people can become obsessed with violence and violent acts, the idea of how obsession can lead to danger, and I would also argue that the film touches on ideas about control, the want to control other beings, or the want to control the narrative etc.
This is also a film about family. OJ and Emerald are brother and sister and this is a film about them coming together and working together to defeat something. The two characters go on a journey together. If you strip away every other element, this is a film that is about grieving siblings who come together to face adversity, and that is beautiful. It’s touching. Their story really pulled on my heartstrings throughout the entire film.
Filming is a topic that comes up a lot during this film. After his father’s death, OJ takes a horse to a shoot for a commercial, but the shoot doesn’t go well because the people on set do not listen to his safety demonstration and they do not treat the horse with respect. This leads to the horse getting spooked, and even though no one was hurt, OJ loses the job. Times have been tough on the ranch and some horses have had to be sold in order to make ends meet. This leads us to meeting Ricky “Jupe” Park. Jupe was a child actor who worked on the sitcom “Gordy’s Home.” Now the adult Jupe runs a western theme park and he has been buying Haywood horses. He even offers to buy the ranch. Jupe is very proud of the work he did as a child on “Gordy’s Home”, but the thing he talks about the most, the story that he exploits, is the tragedy that happened on set. Jupe recalls the story and tells Emerald and OJ how one day, one of the chimps playing Gordy attacked several co-stars on set, and that tragic event is the reason why chimps are not used on sets anymore. Jupe witnessed this entire tragic event play out and it has had a profound impact on him as an adult, but this is a point that I will expand on later.
OJ contemplates Jupe’s offer, and Emerald encourages him to accept it, and while mulling this over, more strange events start occurring on the ranch, prompting OJ and Emerald to want to capture it on film. An important thing to note is that they want to be the ones to capture the evidence on film, because they don’t want anyone else to find out about the events on the ranch and film it, pushing the Haywood’s out. It is their family home, and they want to be the ones to tell this story, and I think this is an important point to keep in mind when thinking about who tells stories and the way that stories are told.
When OJ and Emerald go to buy camera equipment, they meet Angel at the store. Angel is a tech enthusiast and he sets up the equipment at the house. He becomes a supportive friend to OJ and Emerald and as the film plays out, he helps them capture footage of what is eventually called a UFO.
I don’t think this film has a villain, although out of everyone’s actions, Jupe’ are arguably the worst. It becomes obvious that the tragedy on the “Gordy’s Home” set had a profound impact on Jupe because now as an adult, he is obsessed with violent acts. He is obsessed with the idea of a spectacle.
The thing in the sky, the UFO, is actually animal like. It is a predator. OJ is the one who figures this out. This makes sense, seeing as it is his family that has knowledge of animals, how to train them, and also, they respect them. The film takes time to teach audiences about what not to do around horses. No loud noises, no sudden movements, don’t look them in the eye, don’t get too close. Doing these things can spook a horse. OJ figures out that the thing in the sky is predator like because it is being territorial over the ranch, and one way to stay safe is to not look up. Don’t look it in the eye.
The predator in the sky gets hungry, it scours for prey, it eats horses and sometimes it eats people, and then spits out things it can’t eat, hence the coins falling from the sky. We as the audience, learn that Jupe has become so obsessed with the spectacle that this thing creates that he has been buying the horses from OJ to use as bait to lure the thing in the sky out.
The last character I need to mention before I talk anymore about the themes is Antlers Holst. Holst is a cinematographer who Emerald calls because she wants his help getting footage of the thing in the sky, the thing that she has named Jean Jacket, referring to a horse she didn’t get to tame when she was a child. I am mentioning Holst because he has a line that I feel really captures the entire message of the film.
Holst is all about getting “the shot.” Holst warns Emerald that this thing that she is chasing, the dream that will take her to the top of the mountain, it is endless. It is a dream that “you never wake up from.”
This line is really important. This idea of chasing this dream, this idea of being obsessed with “getting the shot, the shot” is ultimately Holst’s undoing.
Holst has vast experience when it comes to capturing the extraordinary on film, and he uses manual cameras so the power outages do not mess with his footage, but he falls prey to the very thing he warned Emerald about. He got the shot. He captured Jean Jacket on film, but he wanted more, he wanted a better shot, so because he was so obsessed with getting the shot, he ignored all warnings and put himself in harm’s way. He ended up getting devoured by Jean Jacket, he died for the shot.
This is extremely significant, because I feel like this moment sums up so much of the rest of the film. Jupe is obsessed with the idea of a spectacle, so much so that he uses horses as bait, endangering them and other people too, all because he is so fixated on seeing the chaos come to life. This obsession is a direct result of what happened to him when he was on set as a child. The tragic day where so many people get extremely hurt has become a spectacle. People don’t treat it with the respect that it deserves, instead people have become obsessed with watching the clip online. People are obsessed with how awful it was, so much so that is has become almost entertaining in a very twisted way. Jupe thrives off of telling the story, even though he is still haunted by it. He loves talking to people about that day because he loves how invested and engaged people are in the story. This is why he wants to lure Jean Jacket out of the sky. He wants a spectacle, and it never seems to occur to him that by doing this, he is endangering and disrespecting other people, and the horses.
He’s not thinking about them, they’re simply part of his spectacle.
I think it would impossible to watch this film and not at all think about what it implies about animals in performance capacities. The Haywood’s care for their horses and respect them. They want their horses to be safe and healthy. Not everyone on set feels that way, Jupe doesn’t care about the horses when he is using them as bait, OJ and Emerald and Angel are the only ones who take Jean Jacket seriously. They respect the fact that the thing in the sky is a predator. It is a threat. It is not something that Jupe should be making a circus out of. Obviously times have changed compared to years and years ago, and where once upon a time large animals were used in theme parks and in circuses in unnatural habitats, this is a notion that is hugely controversial now as more and more people are against animals being held in captivity this way.
I think this idea is impossible to ignore as it perfectly ties into the idea of making a spectacle out of something that should not be one.
As we approach the end of the film, a journalist gets wind of the strange things that are happening at the Haywood ranch, so he arrives with a video camera. OJ, Emerald and Angel already have a plan set in motion about how to tame Jean Jacket so that no-one else gets hurt. This plan gets put at risk when the journalist shows up. Emerald tries to shoo him away, but he is invested and determined to get his shots. Just like Holst, he dies for the sake of filming. OJ did his best to save him but it was too late, and he too gets devoured by Jean Jacket. In his final moments, he is screaming about making sure this is filmed, make sure his death is caught on camera, so even in his final moments, he’s not thinking about his life, he’s thinking about getting his shot.
While I can’t say for certain that this was Peele’s intention, this film really made me think about social media culture and how far we will go to get the shot. How far will we go for appearances? Do we put ourselves in harm’s way by doing too many performative things?
Obviously this is quite extreme. I’ve always held the opinion that social media can be nothing more than lighthearted and fun as long as you behave responsibly and remember that so many things are created and altered so it cannot be viewed as the be all and end all, but as in all horror movies, this idea is taken to the extreme and forces audiences to question things.
I’ve talked about it before, but there is this idea that the morbid is curious. Violence can be very intriguing. I’ve written about violence onscreen in an academic setting, and the idea that really resonated with me is the idea that when something seems so unimaginable, it is fascinating.
It is the idea of wanting to look away but being unable to do so. Audiences enjoy experiencing violence from afar, in a safe way. Watching violence is intriguing because it poses no threat to us when we are safe on our sofas, but there does come a point where you have to think about what you’re doing. Are you viewing the victims of the violent acts as people? Are you feeling sympathy for them? Are you empathising with them? Or have they become part of a spectacle? Have their feelings been forgotten entirely? It is a very interesting, and complex topic because sadly violence does occur, and to pretend it doesn’t happen ever in the media that we take in would be insincere.
How violence is contextualised is very important, and I would suggest that NOPE is a film that prompts audiences to think about the ways in which we view violence and violent acts onscreen.
Despite this movie being unsettling, I would say that it ended on a hopeful note.
I am going to spoil the ending because I want to talk about how I felt that the film had a full-circle structure.
I am very happy that OJ and Emerald both survive. I was worried that we would lose one of them, but I was pleasantly surprised when this wasn’t the case. The film ends with Emerald capturing the shot and Jean Jacket gets destroyed. OJ and Emerald work together the entire time, but in the end, Emerald is the one to “tame” Jean Jacket and I found this to be very poignant. Emerald didn’t get to train or tame the horse when she was a child, because the horse got booked for a job and because OJ was older, he got to go to work with their father, but OJ always looked back at Emerald. Now, we come full-circle. Emerald is an adult, and even though she and OJ are always there for each other, always looking back at each other, she is the one who gets to tame this Jean Jacket, and the film ends with her and OJ smiling at each other, thrilled that they are both okay as photographers and journalists start arriving with their cameras, all wanting their shot.
The cycle starts again. Something happens and we always want to make a spectacle out of it. We want the details, we want the story, we want to know because we’re morbidly fascinated by the events that have occurred, because they seem so unimaginable. I feel this will always be the way it works, because we do need news, we do need to be informed, but it is important to remember to respect the people who actually experienced the event and view them as actual people, rather than figures for our own entertainment.
NOPE is a brilliantly paced, slow-burning film that is deeply unsettling and extremely thought provoking. It is bright yet there is this constant, underlying tension that something isn’t right, something is wrong, and that sense of danger and urgency continues to build and become more intense, and then the final act moves at a very swift pace. It is perfect. It mirrors the sense of urgency that we feel as viewers. The characters must act now. The plan has to work.
It is unsettling without being excessively gory. The score is stunning, and some of the visuals are almost like a painting. Overall I would say that NOPE is an extremely evocative film, and I would highly recommend it.
Have you watched NOPE?