When credits roll, Nope leaves viewers scrambling to look up interpretations and analyses of its plot and symbolism. In the short time since the release of Jordan Peele’s third film, explainer articles parsing its opening, ending, subplot, and Easter eggs have proliferated, with the average writeup resembling a treasure hunting guide more than critical commentary. Does Peele’s message — like a particularly seductive conspiracy theory — require knowing and believing in it in advance? Is watching Nope an exercise in merely decoding that message?
Apocalypse comes for the Haywood family ranch. At first, Keke Palmer’s Emerald is the only one who seems to have a good head on her shoulders, begging that they leave after OJ’s near-miss with the alien presence in their valley. But OJ is adamant about staying, and she begrudgingly does too. He reacts to the escalating horrors with stoicism; in many ways, Daniel Kaluuya reprises his performance from Get Out, responding to cataclysmic events with the same matter-of-fact attitude. His disposition suggests there’s nothing surprising about struggling to survive progressively more terrifying and absurd events — a sentiment relatable to all of us who have met deadpan news of pandemics, mass shootings, and rising fascism in recent years.
OJ’s equanimity is enough to let audiences into the falsity of Peele’s world-building. The physical dangers of the story — cascading detritus, the alien “Jean Jacket,” and all — are red herrings. “Nope,” he repeatedly says as he shakes his head after evading certain death again, a hint that the bizarre threats he faces are meaningless in and of themselves.
The key to Nope’s allegory is Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion chronophotography studies. The Haywoods claim to be descendants of one of the riders in that famous early example of moving pictures. Everybody remembers Muybridge, but nobody remembers their great-grandfather Alistair Haywood, as Emerald tells a production team. Nobody is listening. Working on a commercial set, the Haywood siblings are treated as an afterthought by the mostly white team, which ignores their instructions for dealing with a horse, nearly leading to disaster. Early on, OJ speculates that ghosts are the agents of foul play at the ranch, and his instinct should be taken seriously. The historical “Alistair Haywood,” whose name has been lost to history, was one of the first subjects in film history. But, anonymized by legions of film scholars, he has been objectified, his motion studied alongside that of the horse he rode. The eerie events on the ranch — underlined by faint screams from Jean Jacket’s bowels and Michael Abel’s thrumming music — suggest repressed family history haunting the Haywoods with a vengeance.
At the climax, Jacket metamorphoses into a form that appraises its prey and shutters several times before pursuing. Appropriately, the siblings go to war with this thinly veiled abstraction for the camera, by resolving to capture it in turn. They risk being devoured because they think an “Oprah shot” will settle their financial problems and make them famous. It’s a prolonged metaphorical exploration of “Can the subaltern speak?” wherein the answer seems to be “No” until the final scenes. Can Black people, who have been subordinated as subjects in cinema ever since a Black man first sat for Muybridge, gain power by going behind the camera? Is the pursuit of ethical profit through filmmaking a fool’s errand?
At their best, allegories should be great stories independent of their deeper meanings (as irresistible as parsing those meanings might be). But in Nope, Peele’s questions about Black representation and ethical artistic creation recede into illegibility for those who are not already thinking about them, leaving just the red herrings, which do not make a good story. Why are OJ and Emerald so intent on photographing Jean Jacket, the stakes of which are so poorly outlined, if it doesn’t stand for the violent colonial history of photography and surveillance? How does OJ know not to look Jean Jacket in the eye, if it isn’t already implicitly understood that this rule symbolizes the hazards of being objectified before a camera? And is the Haywoods’ ultimate triumph (the path to which feels arbitrary) even satisfying if it doesn’t symbolize the emancipatory possibilities of Black filmmaking? All of these under-explained elements suggest that allegory is the wrong device for Peele’s themes, as theoretical and particular to history as they are.
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