“Nope” is not a coincidence; it’s a trend.
Each of Jordan Peele’s three horror features are distinctive works with varying themes. With Universal Pictures’ “Nope,” he’s surely in store for the most polarizing reception of his career, as the film’s visuals and narrative beats will divide critics and audiences. In the land of the Oscars, major attention for best picture, director and original screenplay appears out of reach, considering genre bias and possible other awards priorities for Universal ahead with Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” and Maria Schrader’s “She Said.” However, something has become clearer as “Nope” opens to the public: Peele is our modern-day Alfred Hitchcock.
“The blasphemy!” shouted classic movie enthusiasts and #FilmTwitter at their screens. How can we compare a man who has only directed three films to the “master of suspense”?
Hitchcock was one of the most innovative storytellers, focusing on the visuals and themes around obsession and morale. An avid lover of cinema, he assembled every movie with a signature aesthetic, underlining the actor’s emotions, the music composition and just plainly keeping it simple for the audience.
The idea of comparing Peele to Hitchcock came in March 2019, following an all-Black audience screening for his sophomore feature “Us,” starring Lupita Nyong’o, who narrowly missed an Oscar nom for best actress. I found the film even more fulfilling than his debut, with early indicators that he was not a one-trick pony. Peele’s new film, opening Friday, tells the story of OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer), siblings who make a shocking discovery of an unidentified flying object and attempt to get video evidence of the occurrence.
A common misconception among film enthusiasts is equating “suspense” with “horror,” which wasn’t Hitchcock’s focus, nor is it for Peele. “Nope” uses sound and silence to draw emotions. In a crucial scene, Emerald watches surveillance of her farm in one location while tech salesman and installer Angel (played by Brandon Perea) watches in another. But Peele adds another layer: a praying mantis that puts the nerves into overdrive.
Peele, as a writer, director, producer and the founder of Monkeypaw Productions, is showcasing conviction in visual storytelling that others gain after a lifetime in the biz. Getting his start in comedy as a cast member of “Mad TV” and his Emmy-winning show “Key and Peele,” Peele’s choices in plot devices continue to offer a thought-provoking complexity that begs for multiple revisits. Whether it’s the teacup that brings Chris to the Sunken Place in “Get Out” or rabbits symbolizing the “tethered” test subjects in “Us,” they have been Peele’s secret weapon.
Many genre directors chase the “kills” or “twists,” placing those at the forefront. Oscar-nominated director M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”) has constructed an entire career on this pursuit, but Peele doesn’t lead with it — while also not avoiding it — and thus keeps his films consumer-friendly. He also has a knack for empowering his team to explore artistry on their own terms.
In his first film since winning the Oscar for best supporting actor for “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021), Kaluuya’s eloquent stature mirrored with OJ’s meek persona is just another drop in the bucket of his fantastic performances. However, we shouldn’t expect him to come near Oscar’s attention this time around. The same for Palmer, who is best-in-show. Often serving as comic relief in the first half, before getting action scenes and a killer final shot in the latter, it’s difficult to pinpoint an acting nominee in Academy history that feels similar, especially lacking a traditional “Oscar clip” that could rally awards voters. Nonetheless, regional critics groups could certainly bite.
The common denominator between Peele’s three features has been composer Michael Abels. The art of building and executing suspense in scenes relies on the tracks that accompany them. The Emmy-nominated musician’s use of strings and horns is another knockout creation, which is only heightened by the sound design team and music supervisor Krishna Bissessar.
Oscar-nominated Swiss cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”) executes smooth tracking shots that capture galloping horses, blood raining on a house and a rare ability to capture the emotion from the whites of an actor’s eyes. His use of lighting to mimic the moon is also impressive. However, Hollywood’s shortcomings regarding how to properly shoot and light dark skin remain an opportunity that should be rapidly improved upon.
Where the film’s polarization will come into play is its ” big reveal,” which will be laid at the feet of the visual effects artists. There have been multiple examples, such as “Cloverfield” (2008) and “Super 8” (2011), where a fantastically executed mysterious “monster” flick is ruined by the reveal. For many, this will be one of those times.
Although regarded as the most prestigious award in the entertainment industry, the Oscars are not the only measurement of quality or success. Hitchcock has four films on AFI’s 100 Greatest American Movies of all-time — “Psycho” (No. 18), “North by Northwest” (No. 40), “Rear Window” (No. 42) and “Vertigo” (No. 61) — and only one, “Psycho,” was nominated for best picture. His only best picture winner, “Rebecca” (1930), is not listed.
The Peele theory won’t be proven until time has elapsed in cinema history. Whether we’re talking about masters like Hitchcock, or even Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, a great artist elicits diverse answers on their “best work.” Will Peele be one of those artists? Yep!
“Nope” also stars Steven Yeun, Michael Wincott and Keith David, and is currently playing in theaters.