In this instance, the look is also a threat to those doing the looking. The act of seeing can be damaging not only to the target but also to the beholder. There are obvious parallels here with the consumption of exploitation film and how we, as audiences, are unwilling to look away, even when we should. It is what Peele referred to as “the dark side” of our obsession with spectacle.
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Guillermo Del Toro once observed that monsters make the best metaphors, and no one is more determined to put this theory into action than the king of allegorical horror, Jordan Peele.1 In a Peele film, every jump scare or new addition to the body count serves a higher purpose. The creature under the bed is not driven by hunger alone but by racism, class inequality, and a host of other social, cultural, and psychological phenomena. Each Peele movie is a fresh statement that hits the audience over the head and screams “Read me!”
Some might even accuse the director of putting the metaphor ahead of the movie, until the plot and pacing of his pictures collapse under the weight of their symbolism. The criticism is not entirely unfair. To be a character in a Peele movie must be exhausting: no action is permitted unless it contains wider significance. A trip to the bathroom is only justified if it connects thematically with the activity that preceded it. Yet, at its best, the horror in Peele’s films is enhanced, not undermined, by its deeper meaning. It is not just an anonymous psychopath coming at us anymore, but a manifestation of our collective darkness, unearthed by the director and handed a bloody butcher knife.
Nope (2022), Peele’s most recent offering, is another movie that demands that the viewer sit up in their seats and engage their analytical functions. And analyse it people have. The flying saucer/creature at its centre has been linked with everything from Hollywood exploitation, to the nature of fame and celebrity, to our twenty-first-century surveillance society. Nope is nothing if not multidimensional, and all of these readings have their merits. Some have been confirmed by the director himself, dropping enough clues to prompt further questions but never quite enough to answer them definitively.2
It is possible, however, to think of Nope in a different way. With its secretive (possibly extraterrestrial) antagonist and UFO hunters, Nope is a film about the power of the look. Partly, it is about the women and ethnic minorities who have been deprived of that look, and their struggles to defeat the curse of invisibility and find representation on the cinema screen and elsewhere. On a more personal level, it is about the terrible consequences of seeing, of being seen, and (perhaps worst of all) of not being seen.
Of course, Peele is not the first filmmaker – or even the first horror filmmaker – to tackle the complicated politics of the look. In a visual medium like cinema, where every movie camera is a potential voyeur, it is no surprise that films like Michael Powell’s aptly named Peeping Tom (1960) have explored the disturbing ways that human beings look at other human beings. Brian De Palma strayed into similar territory in projects like Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981), films in which every character seems to be either a perpetrator or victim of surveillance. Alfred Hitchcock, meanwhile, was the filmmaker most obsessed with the act of seeing. In Hitchcock’s movies, everyone is looking at everyone else, whether it is Jimmy Stewart trailing Kim Novack through the San Francisco streets in Vertigo (1958), or Anthony Perkins observing Janet Leigh through a peephole in his motel wall in Psycho (1960). No wonder academic film writers have dedicated so much space to Freud and the “scopic drive,” and the psychoanalytical implications of this voyeuristic medium.
The themes of seeing and being seen are particularly well suited to the horror genre, where your life might depend on spotting the killer in time – the same killer who has been watching you all along from the cover of the suburban shrubbery (joined by the audience, courtesy of a POV shot).
In Nope, though, Peele approaches this subject matter from a refreshing perspective. The film is the story of a UFO (which eventually turns out to be a living creature) that has invaded a Hollywood horse ranch. The Haywood family, who own the ranch, are determined to capture the object on camera. In the hands of Peele, this premise is used to explore the many permutations – both good and bad – of the look. Whether human, animal, or extraterrestrial, there are different kinds of look in Nope, ranging from the friendly, to the hostile, to the indifferent. In the act of seeing, these looks have various intentions, and can lead to very different consequences. Peele examines the diverse emotions these different looks can unleash: how being seen by someone else can make us feel awkward, embarrassed, ashamed, or enraged. But he is also concerned with the absence of the look, and the disastrous consequences of going unseen. Finally, Nope is also about exploitation and spectacle: the way we turn other people, other creatures, or even ourselves, into a spectacle.
These themes are established early on in the blood-soaked, horrifying mess of the film’s prologue. This opening scene takes us briefly back to the 1990s and a fictional sitcom about an American family and its pet chimpanzee. The TV show looks oddly authentic – like something that could have been screened between episodes of Fresh Prince and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. But when Nope begins, the studio set has descended into chaos. The chimpanzee, fed up with being the butt of every joke, has lost its mind and gone on a violent rampage.
This is a classic Peele moment: bloodshed and terror, yes, but also lingering, deliberative camerawork that suggests there is much more at stake. Already in this scene, we see the violence of the look, and the violence it can provoke in those subjected to it. The chimp had been the victim of exploitation. Every week it was dragged out, placed under the bright lights, and subjected to the stares of its fellow performers, the crew, and the studio audiences. Finally, with all of these condescending and hostile eyes, it snaps. Going insane, it kills crew members, chews the face off an actress, and chases the audience from the building. The chimpanzee was turned into a spectacle and, in response, has created a spectacle of its own.
The only person it does not attack is its young co-star, the cute child actor who is the other half of the fictional TV show. The child has been hiding under the bed, watching the scene unfold in horror. Perhaps because he has also suffered from exploitation, this was the only person who had looked at the chimp with some sympathy, some humanity. Unlike the cackling studio audience, the child co-star did not see the chimpanzee as a spectacle but as a friend. The other looks were demeaning, condescending, and drove the animal insane. But when the chimpanzee spots the child hiding underneath the bed, the young actor’s look has the opposite effect. Suddenly, the chimpanzee is no longer a marauding, murderous thing. It does not attack the child, as we might have expected. On the contrary, when confronted with the child’s look, it cries out in pain and hides its head in its hands, as if it can no longer bear to be seen by its young friend. Purely through the act of looking, the child has unlocked the chimpanzee’s shame. Through the loving yet petrified eyes of the child the chimp is forced to look at itself, and to see what it has become.
In this prologue, we are already starting to understand the complex, interpersonal dynamics of the look. One kind of look can send us over the edge and turn us into monsters, while another can bring us back.
These themes appear most obviously in the mysterious presence that is the film’s antagonist. The bizarre spacecraft/creature is determined not to be seen. It disguises itself as a cloud, hoping to avoid the attentions of the human beings below. When it is finally noticed, it responds with rage and attempts to kill whoever was unlucky enough (or foolish enough) to see it. When cornered it changes form, expanding in size and trying to overawe its audience with visual spectacle. Despite the dangers, though, the film’s human characters are rarely able to turn away. They pursue the creature at the expense of their own safety, desperate to catch a glimpse regardless of the consequences.
In this instance, the look is also a threat to those doing the looking. The act of seeing can be damaging not only to the target but also to the beholder. There are obvious parallels here with the consumption of exploitation film and how we, as audiences, are unwilling to look away, even when we should. It is what Peele referred to as “the dark side” of our obsession with spectacle.3
Perhaps more interesting, however, is how the complexity of the look plays out in the Haywood family. The Haywoods own a horse ranch in California, training horses for the film and television industry. The two siblings, OJ and Em, are the film’s male and female stars, played by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer. Early on, their father (the founder of the ranch) is killed in a strange accident. Nevertheless, for the rest of the movie, his presence looms over the adult siblings. They play his records, drink his liquor, and he looks out at them from family photographs. More importantly, we start to understand the relationship each child had with him, revealed through dialogue with efficiency by Peele.
We learn that OJ and Em are shadow selves, binary opposites, each possessing the qualities the other does not. OJ is the golden child; the sibling chosen by his father to continue his legacy and take the Haywood Ranch into the future. All of his father’s ambition was laser-focused on him, the dutiful son. Doggedly, he does everything in his power to help the ranch succeed, even if it requires the sacrifice of his own aspirations.
However, all those expectant looks from his father have taken their toll on OJ. When we first meet him, he is accompanying one of the ranch’s horses to a film shoot. The bustling film set is no place for OJ. Unlike the extroverted movie-types around him, he is a shy figure, hiding beneath his baseball cap and almost monosyllabic in his speech. He clearly wants to be anywhere but here, in the middle of all this activity and exposed to these stares. When he asks those present not to look at his horse directly in case it becomes aggressive, we sense that is really he, not the horse, that is about to explode. Like the horse, he detests that level of scrutiny. OJ has spent his life under the glare of an overbearing father, and now, the last thing he needs is more attention. He was the victim, more than the beneficiary, of his father’s focus and has spent his whole life being moulded for his future role as the ranch’s custodian. Trapped under all that expectation, he has never escaped his father’s shadow. Instead, he has become a hollow vehicle for his father’s ambitions, withdrawn and ineloquent, with no personality or legacy of his own.
His sister Em, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction. She is the black sheep of the family. While filial devotion caused OJ to remain on the ranch, she left to pursue a string of other careers.
At the same time that OJ was smothered by his father’s attention, Em suffered from receiving too little. She recounts a story from her childhood in which, in a rare moment of father-daughter bonding, she was scheduled to spend a day with her father and her own horse, Jean Jacket. Finally, she was set to be the sole recipient of her father’s gaze. At the last minute, though, the ranch received a phone call and suddenly Jean Jacket was needed for an upcoming production. The activity with her father was cancelled, and OJ was called on to assist with the preparation while she retired to her bedroom, alone. Em could only watch from her window, seeing her brother spend the time with her father that was supposed to be hers. What was worse, she explains later, is that the father never even looked up from his work to see her there. As always, his eyes and attention were directed elsewhere.
In Em we witness the consequences of not being seen – of desperately trying to attract a look that never comes. In response to her father’s neglect, Em lives the most conspicuous life she can. In that early scene, as OJ stands silently beside his horse, she gate-crashes the film set like a mini-tornado. Immediately, she is the antithesis of her brother: confident, talkative, outgoing. Going into a pre-rehearsed spiel, she captures the attention of the film crew, pausing all activity, and sells them the family business in a way OJ never could have. Everything about her demeanour is telling the world: “Look at me. Pay me attention.”
Em has responded to the indifference she suffered as a child by turning herself into a spectacle. She has coped with being ignored by her father by ensuring that she is seen by as many other eyes as possible. “The film is about our addiction to attention,” Peele explained. “Mine, yours, the media, the film industry.”4
The fact that Em is female is not a coincidence. Her invisibility is not hers alone, but just one example of how women have been ignored, not only within wider society and the nuclear family, but also within the film industry. In her influential 1975 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey argued that women in American film have usually been the recipient of the gaze instead of its bearer.5 Em’s struggle to be seen reflects how women within Hollywood have fought to take centre stage rather than be relegated to set dressing in someone else’s story.
There is also a racial component to Nope. The Haywoods are proud to possess the first black-owned ranch in Hollywood. Black people have had a problematic relationship with the American film industry, sometimes not seen at all and sometimes contorted into grotesque stereotypes. Hollywood’s gaze, when it bothered with them at all, has not always been kind. Some of its most historically significant movies make for uncomfortable viewing today. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903) traded in cruel racial stereotypes, and Birth of a Nation (1915), perhaps the most influential film of all time, pitted heroic Klan members against corrupt black politicians. Hollywood’s first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), concerned a Jewish performer who appears onstage in blackface.
When they were not stereotyped and deprived of their humanity, black communities were simply ignored. During her presentation in Nope, Em tells her audience about the world’s first moving pictures, the 1878 footage that captured a horse in flight. She points out that the rider of the famous horse was a black man. But while the footage and the horse have taken their place in cinematic history, she explains, the black rider has been forgotten. Like women, black people in Hollywood have struggled to be seen and, as with Em’s father’s stare, the movie camera has usually been directed elsewhere. In an interview with GQ, Peele confirmed this was part of his intentions for Nope: “It’s [a film] about taking up that space,” he explained. “It’s about existing. It’s about acknowledging the people who were erased in the journey to get here.”6 Em’s experience tells us that, sometimes, the only thing worse than being looked at by unfriendly eyes is not being looked at all.
Yet, while her father ignored Em, her brother OJ never deprived her of his attention. That day when she looked down on her father and OJ training her horse, it was her brother who looked up and registered her presence. All these years later, retelling the story as an adult, she is still grateful to OJ for that moment. The lasting impact of that simple gesture on Em reveals the redeeming power of the look. OJ’s was not a look of contempt, or amusement but of love. Of simple acknowledgment.
The adult version of OJ will repeat that act in a later, crucial scene. By now, the man-eating craft has emerged from its cover and is pursuing the Haywood siblings. Em has found an electric motorbike, which has enabled her to outrun the creature. In this sequence, however, the bike’s battery is depleted and she is left without transport. The bike’s battery can be recharged, but it will take precious time, and the creature – fully roused and determined to feed – is rapidly closing in on her.
Also present, though, is OJ, mounted on his horse like a postmodern cowboy. While Em recharges the bike’s battery so that she can flee, OJ distracts the creature. Instead of bolting, he positions himself and his horse in its line of sight, drawing its attention away from his sister. Meanwhile, the creature is expanding in size, endeavouring to look as intimidating as it can. Its massive silhouette bears down on OJ, not unlike the way his father had done throughout his childhood. But OJ will not be frightened away. Instead, he remains there, absorbing its look, giving his sister time to recharge the bike. Em screams at him to leave, but he refuses. He will not leave until she can also get away safely.
And it is there, putting himself on the line, that OJ cuts to the heart of the film’s themes. Looking intently at his sister, he puts his fingers to his eyes and then points at her. Then he repeats the movement: puts his fingers to his eyes, points at her. It is the film’s best moment, helped by a magnificent piece of music by composer Michael Abels. What OJ is effectively telling his sister is: “I see you. Even if Pops didn’t. Even if no one else does. I see you.” In doing so, OJ proves that the right look, from the right person, is the most powerful of all. Good conquers evil. A loving look conquers an indifferent, or an absent, one.
OJ only completes this heroic act so that Em, eventually, can have the final say. After the bike battery is recharged, it is she who goes on to kill the creature, exploding it from within with a helium balloon. Before it is destroyed she even manages to secure the “money shot” – the priceless footage of the creature that will guarantee the ranch’s economic future. Even if Em’s father was barely aware of her existence, all these years later she has saved his ranch from bankruptcy (and from a carnivorous spacecraft). Nope has its female protagonist.
Meanwhile, in saving Em’s life (so that she can save the day), the shy and stumbling OJ is transformed into a hero. Finally, he has come into his own and achieved what his father never could: he has acknowledged Em’s existence and provided her with the platform to become her own hero. He has become the black cowboy star that Hollywood’s cameras never captured. The black man riding the horse is invisible no more. OJ can now take his place among the everyman heroes exemplified by Roy Schneider’s Chief Brody in Jaws (1976): the quiet yet decent men who answer the call at the key moment.
And what’s more, he accomplishes it all with just one look.
I see you, Jordan Peele. I see you.
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All images are screenshots from the film.
- Interviewed by the YouTube channel Big Think, “Guillermo Del Toro: “Monsters Are Living, Breathing Metaphors.” (Uploaded June 14, 2011). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXBU0X_LuQI) [↩]
- Interviewed on the Today YouTube channel, “Jordan Peele Discusses Ideation of New Horror Film ‘Nope.’” (Uploaded July 22, 2022). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-KJ-BkuTJE [↩]
- Today, “Jordan Peele Discusses Ideation of New Horror Film ‘Nope.’” [↩]
- Nick Chen, “Jordan Peele: ‘Black People Have a Different Relationship to Sci-Fi,”’ Dazed (9 August, 2022). https://www.dazeddigital.com/film-tv/article/56720/1/jordan-peele-nope-interview [↩]
- Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, 16:3 (Autumn 1975), pp. 6-18. [↩]
- Gerrick D. Kennedy, “Jordan Peele and Keke Palmer Look to the Sky,” GQ (20 July, 2022). https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/culture/article/jordan-peele-keke-palmer-nope-interview [↩]