Say yep to Jordan Peele’s horsey horror ‘Nope.’
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Steven Yeun, Nope is a roller coaster ride of weirdness sure to keep you up at night.
Note from the author: This is a rated-R horror movie. My review will allude to one of the more disturbing scenes but not go into full detail.
“The residents of a lonely gulch in inland California bear witness to an uncanny and chilling discovery.” -IMDB
The movie opens with the sounds of a 90s TV sitcom in the background, but that quickly fades into mostly eerie silence. There’s just a loud, methodical thumping, like something is being hit. Then we’re given quick glimpses of a Hollywood sound stage, with a bloodied bare foot and a shoe standing on its heel in the foreground, as a chimpanzee trundles into the scene and makes intense eye contact with the camera.
I’ve never longed for a “fourth wall” so much in my life.
Next, we’re at a horse ranch. Our protagonist, OJ Haywood, completes the morning chores while his father trains in the arena. They briefly talk about one of their horses being cast for a movie and their hope that they’ll win the contract for the sequel too.
The conversation ends when they start hearing strange noises and mysterious objects begin falling from the sky. When OJ turns back around, his father is slumped over the saddle horn as the horse slowly walks out of the arena.
Then there’s a time jump, and we’re on another sound stage with OJ and a horse positioned in front of a green screen. It’s obvious OJ is completely uncomfortable with this part of his job. Luckily, his sister, Emerald, saves the day and makes it clear she’s the face of Haywood Hollywood Horses. Both Haywoods try to convey to the people on set what the horse, Lucky, wants and needs, but, yeah, they don’t listen.
When a cameraman shoves a shiny ball in Lucky’s face, it doesn’t end well.
At this point, we discover the Haywoods are in dire financial straits. OJ and Emerald are struggling to maintain the business and ranch after their father’s death. After his failed performance on set, Lucky is sold to Jupe, the proprietor of a tourist trap western town a few miles down the road from the Haywood ranch.
While in Jupe’s office, Emerald realizes Jupe was the child star on the show ‘Gordy’s Home,’ which ended abruptly when the “monkey went crazy.”
It becomes clear this is the incident from the movie’s opening credits and that’s verified when we’re given another quick flashback of a much younger Jupe cowering beneath a table. The shot is an extreme close-up and never moves away from the young actor’s face, but there are really, really unsettling sounds in the background.
Back at the ranch, the Haywood siblings reminisce about their own childhood. Emerald recounts a story about a horse she received for her ninth birthday, Jean Jacket, and how she wanted so badly to train the horse herself, but instead their dad took over and used the horse on a movie set without her consent. OJ is trying to convince her their dad always did what’s best when she, off camera, says, “Why’s Ghost in the arena?”
OJ goes out into the dark night to investigate and finds the horse staring into the distance. He looks up at the night sky for a moment, when Emerald starts blaring music from inside the house. OJ yells at her to turn it down, but, obviously, she can’t hear him, and the ruckus causes Ghost to bolt from the arena. After which Emerald shouts down at OJ, “Hey! Where he going?”
So OJ jumps on the side-by-side to go find Ghost when he hears a shriek in the sky. A power outage seems to follow the shrieking, and then he spots a silver blur behind a cloud.
Later, he recounts to his sister, “It was big. Big. It was fast. Too fast. Too quiet to be a plane.”
It’s immediately implied there are aliens afoot.
Will the aliens attack the Haywood ranch? What’s going on in Jupe’s freaky western town? You’ll just have to watch and see!
When I started watching this movie, I had absolutely no clue it was a “horse movie,” and I’m not entirely sure Jordan Peele meant for it to be one. Although, we did start the film with the death of a parent and a farm in financial trouble, so it pretty much hit every trope.
Regardless, there is some really accurate equestrian representation. For example, during the alien invasion, when there’s basically murder and mayhem everywhere, OJ has to stay at the ranch because he’s “got mouths to feed” and probably hundreds of other barn chores that simply can’t go undone. I felt this scene deep in my core.
Daniel Kaluuya, playing OJ, did take the horse aspect of filming seriously, spending time with the Compton Cowboys and Randy Savvy before shooting began. Savvy worked with him on all aspects of horsemanship, including tacking up, mounting, and riding, but they also worked to make Kaluuya comfortable around the animals.
“I remember one of the first things we did was just practice being loose,” Savvy told Indie Wire. “Because what happens is, people are anxious around horses because they have this preconceived notion that horses are dangerous animals, right? So people naturally have anxiety based on that. And so it kind of relays when they’re dealing with the horse, you kind of sense a tension, and their body language seems stiff and tense.”
In the end, Savvy was happy with the film’s depiction of working with horses and the “lived experience of a black horseman.”
The riding scenes under the skillful hands of wrangler Bobby Lovgren are also authentic. When OJ is galloping flat out at the end, that’s really Kaluuya in the saddle.
Savvy had this to say: “There were certain scenes where [Kaluuya] was galloping, and he looked very loose on the horse, and he looked cool and chill, and he didn’t seem stiff.”
And, you guys, the movie is scary. There’s one scene in particular, when OJ says the titular “nope,” that will haunt my dreams.
I think a few of the scenes are even more scary for us equestrians because we know what it’s like to be in a dark, quiet barn late at night and hear a scratching in the corner. We’ve felt that eerie stomach-churning feeling when our horse spooks at something and bolts hell for leather in the wrong direction.
And yet there was humor infused throughout.
Keke Palmer, as Emerald, is the bright spot of comedy countering Kaluuya’s quiet stoicism. All the acting was excellent, to be honest, but the two leads absolutely shined as the Haywood siblings.
All in all, this was a classic Hitchcockian movie with plenty of jump scares and an absolutely spine-chilling soundtrack. The cinematography choices are so incredibly good, with Peele choosing to shoot many of the more haunting scenes from a single point of view. A technique that traps us as viewers with a single character, leaving us to guess at what horror is happening off screen. That’s also when that amazing minimalist soundtrack comes into play.
With any Peele project, there are also loads of metaphors and symbolism, but I’ll leave that to the more serious movie reviews. I just signed up for a fun ride and that’s exactly what I got.
I give Nope a perfect four out of four Golden Horseshoes.
Amanda Uechi Ronan is an author, equestrian and wannabe race car driver. Follow her on Instagram @uechironan.