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Looking Ahead

Nope (Jordan Peele, 2022, USA)

by Marcelo Miranda

          Jordan Peele's third film illustrates a meeting between Alfred Hitchcock and M. Night Shyamalan, shot through with urgencies and restlessness brought to the Hollywood mainstream in the 2020s. It means that Nope (2022) is a tribute to some of the names that shaped Peele's imagination (I could also include Steven Spielberg and Rod Serling), but all of them come in reconfigured to what makes his cinema quite unique in today's popular audiovisual scene. Watching the film means noticing a series of familiar procedures, which the most active spectator will immediately recognize, but presented in a somewhat twisted, strange, unusual way, as if it were the same, but different. From the prologue, only explained much later in the narrative, the feeling is that something is out of place in a plot like this, which conventionally would be "just" the story of a small group of people facing an alien invasion.

           The initial strangeness of the story of the crazed chimpanzee is the keynote of Nope. It is through this parallel plot that the unseen is incorporated into the central drama of brothers OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em (Keke Palmer), forced to deal with an apparent supernatural phenomenon that initially manifests itself by something they cannot glimpse. If in Shyamalan's films - especially Signs (2002), The Village (2004), and The Happening (2008) - the unseen threat is configured from the clues that the characters' surroundings provide us with, be it the news on the radio, oral histories, or information from TV, in Jordan Peele’s oeuvre, it is manifested by the perception of the very presence of the threat in the farm's skies and the very quick belief that in order for the phenomenon to actually be proven, it must be recorded in images. Nope shifts the resistance for the sake of survival seen in Shyamalan to the pursuit of performance, media success, legitimization metaphorized in Oprah Winfrey's show, somewhat like the Moscow in Uncle Vania (Anton Tchecov's play), a place where the characters want to go as a utopian and idealized one that will welcome them.

          In Jordan Peele's film, therefore, the not-seeing is the premise, but it is not development. The viewer quickly sees the threat, including from within its bowels, and thereby can share its grandeur and danger. OJ, Em, and the small band of adventurers that forms around them fail, at least until the very last moment of the film, to capture the definitive image of the threat, but Jordan Peele does this for them generously for at least half the duration of Nope. It’s as if, by not hiding the threat (contrary to what Shyamalan does in Signs or Spielberg does in Jaws), Peele doesn't allow his characters to be questioned. Any ballast of ambiguity is removed from the film, leaving it up to the audience to share with OJ, Em & co the unfolding of their actions and ambitions.

          It is a fundamental gesture by the creator, especially when putting on scene a family of black people who, from the beginning, are treated with a certain disdain and crooked looks by the white artists and technicians on the set (who are allegories, to a certain extent, of a significant portion of the white audience of a film like this). One feels the racial relationship of very strong tension that Peele masters brilliantly in the mise-en-scene and has in Get out its greatest representation. Therefore, this is not a film of doubts, but of affirmations - of gestures, of looks, of truths, of beliefs, of actions. The sequence in which OJ runs on horseback trying to "tame" the flying creature following him is a kind of modern remake of the open-air escape of Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) from a small plane in North by Northwest, but with all the signs reversed. Now it is the young black worker from the American hinterland who is on the ground; he is the one who seeks to entangle whoever is in the air, and the flying being is glimpsed clearly by the spectator, with no further enigmas other than its origin or provenance.

            When Em finally manages to photograph the flying creature, the film seems to care less about this than about the transfiguration of the story into myth. The ending, the most optimistic of Peele's three films thus far, accumulates the contained threat, the rescued family, the recorded image, and the remnants of the material and affective shards, all quite objectively. There is no commodification of trauma or entrapment in pains of the past, as has been customary in the stomping grounds of some horror and science fiction films in recent years. In Nope, despite the title in Portuguese (T.: No! Don’t look), looking ahead, beyond the dust, is what shapes the future.

October, 2022

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