Greetings again from the darkness. With his first two films, GET OUT (2017) and US (2019), writer-director-producer Jordan Peele already has an Oscar and has firmly established himself as one of the most innovative and visionary filmmakers working today. He has entered the revered class of directors whose new films are automatically ‘must see’. This is in spite of our knowing full well that he doesn’t strive for mass accessibility, and typically seems less focused on character development and more focused on what’s happening to those characters and how they react. Mr. Peele’s latest is a unique blend of Science Fiction, Horror, and Comedy, with a dose of horses, UFOs, and box store employees. At its core, the film is about chasing the spectacle of a spectacle, so that one might also become a spectacle.
A cold opening is a bit of ‘found footage’ from a horrific event on the set of a TV show featuring a chimp named Gordy. We have no idea how this fits in to what we are about to watch, but it’s shocking and disturbing. We then shift to find Otis Haywood Sr (Keith David) working the horses on a ranch with his son, OJ Jr (Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH, 2021). Dad founded the Haywood Hollywood Ranch to train and handle horses for the entertainment industry – movies, TV shows, advertisements. A mysterious death means OJ Jr and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer, AKEELAH AND THE BEE, 2006) must take over running the ranch; however, a hilarious scene on set highlights the differences between big brother and little sister. OJ understands horses, but is laconic and reserved. Emerald is hungry for personal fame and is bursting with energy and dreams. She has little use for the ranch, while OJ is devoted to carrying on dad’s work – knowing he needs Emerald’s personality.
The suspense is turned up to 11 when strange things begin happening on the ranch and in the sky. OJ (his name is a running gag) and Emerald recognize this is their opportunity to cash in by securing photographic evidence of UFO (or UAP) and alien activity. Joining in on the mission is Angel (a terrific Brandon Perea), a tech nerd from Fry’s Electronics. The trio is joined later by renowned cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott using a Tom Waits voice), who understands the importance of capturing what OJ and Emerald call “the Oprah shot”. Obviously, this is Peele’s commentary on how folks today long for their chance to shine in the spotlight – and capitalize monetarily on the moment. Also recognizing this shot at fame is Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), the owner of a local western-themed amusement park. Jupe is a former child actor whose career included “Kid Sheriff” and a role in the sitcom featured in the opening sequence with Gordy the chimp. He has tapped into the skyward activities, but longs for more.
Purposefully vague is my approach in writing about this, as director Peele and cinematographer extraordinaire, Hoyte Van Hoytema (frequent collaborator with Christopher Nolan) serve up some incredible visuals and high-suspense sequences, and it’s best if you know as little as possible going in. It’s easy to spot influences of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), “The Twilight Zone”, and other Sci-Fi classics, as well as directors Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock. In a tip of the cap to film history, Peele ties in the early moving picture work of Eadweard Muybridge and his 1878 clip, “The Horse in Motion.” It’s a brilliant touch that cinephiles will appreciate.
Supporting work comes from Donna Mills, Oz Perkins, Eddie Jemison, and Terry Notary as Gordy the Chimp, but it’s the chemistry between Kaluuya and Palmer that make a relatively thin story succeed as commentary on society. Peele even gets in a few pot shots at the media (TMZ) and the oversaturation of celebrity. The desolate setting of the hills and valleys outside of Los Angeles make for a perfect setting, as does the contrasting use of daytime and nighttime for certain shots. Peele proves yet again that he has a real feel for serving up commentary disguised as tension, or is it tension doused with commentary? Either way, I’m lining up now for his next film, whatever that may be.
Opening in theaters July 22, 2022