After the tumultuous thrill of a successful debut begins to ebb, artists face a fundamental question: Go big or go small?
Do they now refine and perfect what they’ve already begun to explore, or look for larger fields to play in? Do they pare down their art to essentials, or try to expand it?
Since his first film, “Get Out,” Jordan Peele has chosen to go bigger. And his latest, “Nope” — opening July 22 — illustrates the pleasures, and perils, of that choice.
A big-screen science-fiction Western, “Nope” takes place on the dusty plains of California, where O.J. Haywood and his sister, Emerald — but mostly O.J. — are running their late father’s ranch. Experienced horse wranglers, they supply animals to TV and movie shoots, although lately business has been poor.
Then one night, O.J. glimpses something that looks an awful lot like an old-school flying saucer. Add to that a variety of odd occurrences — spooked animals, inexplicable noises, objects falling from the sky — and he convinces himself there’s something out there.
And his sister soon convinces him that getting it on film is their ticket to media stardom.
“Nope” is one of the last big films of this slim summer season, and there is plenty to like in it. Judging by the social-media reaction after early screenings, plenty of other writers do.
There is Hoyte van Hoytema’s beautifully realized cinematography, which gives depth and subtlety to constantly shifting skyscapes of clouds and fog and sunlight. There is the way the movie sounds — from the fresh song choices to the carefully crafted effects. There is — spoiler alert — the creature itself, who once it shows up is beautiful and bizarre and completely unlike the little gray men we’ve become inured to since “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
And, in what is a small cast, there are still several standout performances, particularly Keke Palmer as the fast-talking, take-charge Emerald, and the elegantly dissipated Michael Wincott, who shows up as an eccentric Hollywood craftsman eager to get this all on film. (Far less satisfying is the mild annoyance of Brandon Perea as a geeky hanger-on, and the lifeless lead performance of Daniel Kaluuya, who seems to confuse cowboy stoicism with somnambulance.)
There is still enough here to make a good movie, though. Except Peele keeps adding more.
For example, there is an entire subplot, complete with flashbacks, about a corny old family sitcom, infamous for an episode on which a supposedly trained chimp went berserk and gruesomely attacked the cast. The youngest child actor on that series survived and now runs a Wild West theme park, and dabbles in reality shows.
Including this allows Peele to indulge himself in a few ways. He gets to recreate and parody bad TV. He gets to return to a minor theme in the film: the way we exploit animals for our entertainment. And he gets to give Steven Yeun a big, silly part as the surviving star.
But in the end, it’s all largely extraneous. It expands the story without deepening it, slowing down a film that’s nearly two-and-a-quarter hours long.
Of course, as a screenwriter, Peele can be discursive, particularly when he wants to make a social or political point. America’s ignorance of, and repression of, Black history is just one of his concerns — and, sadly, an increasingly important one these days, as reactionaries try to purge anything “uncomfortable” from our textbooks. Here, Peele takes the opportunity to add some facts about Black contributions to Hollywood history, as well as the acknowledgement that cowboy culture wasn’t, and isn’t, simply white. And smartly, he does it with humor, and through inference and imagery. It’s dramatic, not didactic, and those touches genuinely add to the film.
But too many other things here feel like distractions. Too many scenes go on too long. Too many ideas — our tabloid culture, our hunger for fame — are literally namechecked (our hero, remember, is called O.J.) without being deeply explored. And all that goes back to directorial impulses that began with Peele’s second film, “Us.”
His first film, “Get Out” (2017), didn’t have a wasted moment. Its theme — the exploitation of Black minds and bodies — wasn’t simple, but it was straightforward and expressed through a single, clear metaphor. You left the theater satisfied.
But with “Us” (2019), Peele began to let his ambitions overwhelm his artistry. Like the suite that ends The Beatles’ Abbey Road album, it took a lot of half-finished ideas and tacked them together, hoping we’d be fooled into thinking we were getting a single, finished work of art. Just exactly how did the tethering in “Us” work? And what did Hands Across America have to do with anything? Who knows, but wasn’t it cool?
A little ambiguity is fine; audiences don’t necessarily need to know everything about a character. But in “Nope,” we not only don’t know why or how the alien got here, we don’t have any real idea of its powers or its vulnerabilities. And that’s a crucial problem. Think of the far superior alien-invasion film “A Quiet Place.” We didn’t know what its creatures wanted either, except perhaps to eat us. But as the movie went on, we learned, along with the human characters, what the monsters could and couldn’t do. That added suspense to the story and a real satisfaction to the climax, in which our heroes finally put it all together. We’re robbed of that in “Nope.”
The film provides other things, of course. The first thing you see onscreen is a written promise of “spectacle,” and Peele certainly delivers that, technically. The whole film serves as a welcome rebuke to the Marvel movie factory, which tends to limit its marquee for-hire directors to character-driven scenes while claiming the look of the big action set pieces for itself. And the spectacle here (along with the kind of spot-the-movie references that some critics live for) will certainly win the film some great reviews. All criticism is subjective, anyway.
But subjectively speaking, what always appeals to me is simplicity — a narrowing of subject and approach that concentrates the power of the final result. It’s why I prefer punk bands to progressive rock, “The Great Gatsby” to “Tender Is the Night,” a single scoop of ice cream to a banana split — and “Get Out” to what Peele’s followed it with. Sometimes, less truly is more.
And often more is simply too much.
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