Haywood Hollywood Horses has been a mainstay of the horse wrangling business for decades and the Haywood family can trace its ancestry back to the original jockey on the famous Muybridge/Stanford horse of the first moving picture in history. When a freak accident kills family patriarch Otis (Keith David), it’s up to his introverted son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) to keep the ranch going and the business alive. His sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) helps out, but she’s a typical Hollywood wannabe, trying to promote her scripts, her acting skills, her singing, and land her own gigs, not just jobs for their horses in movies and TV.
The Haywood family ranch is tucked away in a remote corner of Los Angeles, in an isolated canyon not far from child actor Ricky Park (Steven Yeun) and his “Jupiter’s Claim” Western-themed amusement park. Ricky is famous not just for his roles as a child actor, however, but for surviving a freak experience when a chimp went crazy on the set and brutally attacked the cast.
The horses know there’s something troubling about the Haywood Ranch area and when the power goes out and a horse vanishes, Emerald is ready to head back to town in a panic, but OJ, the stoic anti-hero of the film, is going to stay. Nothing’s going to force him off of his family land. Not even if it’s not of this earth. Instead, they head to Fry’s Electronics and wire the ranch with surveillance cameras, dreaming of being on Oprah with clear footage of a UFO. Helping them out is chatty tech Angel Torres (Brandon Perea).
But what’s really going on, where did the horse go and what are they really seeing up in the sky since they know that unidentified flying objects always end up being something entirely mundane?
Nope is at its best when we are trying to puzzle out what’s going on, with delightfully snappy dialog, a fun and surprising musical soundtrack, and great chemistry between the actors. To ratchet up the tension, weird events keep occurring, including, inexplicably, Ricky’s childhood incident with the murderous chimp. Nope is also an homage to great horror with its slowly increasing dread, ominous long shots, and barely glimpsed views of something in the sky.
Once the big reveal happens, however, the film loses some of its momentum and a lot of its logic, leaving attentive viewers more than a bit confused about what’s happening, how things fit together, why characters are behaving as they do, and what the heck that killer chimp has to do with anything at all.
Surprisingly for writer and director Jordan Peele, there’s very little consideration of race, gender or socio-economic issues in this humans-vs-whatever-the-heck-is-in-the-sky tale. Points in the story where these themes could be more closely examined are quickly wrapped up without any commentary, most notably the sound stage scene where OJ is trying to wrangle a horse for an advertisement. The female star is clearly a Southern Belle archetype who is upset to see a black horse trainer, but Nope quickly moves to the next scene without further consideration.
There’s a lot to like about this horror film with its diverse cast, excellent production, and intriguing story. The underlying problem is what I refer to as the Cloverfield problem: that monster movies are most effective before the monster is actually revealed. Nope is terrific for the first half, and many in the audience will give Peele a free pass for the narrative hiccups simply because the dialog and characters are so compelling and likable. But it’s hard not to wonder if there’s a director’s cut in the wings that will be revealed where the additional footage will finally explain how everything fits together. Including that monkey.