This is how eager people are to see Jordan Peele’s “Nope”: Forty-five minutes before a sneak preview Tuesday night at the AMC Boston Common the line stretched more than a block down Boylston Street.
Such eagerness makes sense. Peele is like no other director in his capacity to make movies that combine wit, scariness, and social alertness. His filmmaking debut, “Get Out” (2017), earned Peele a best original screenplay Oscar. Was it a horror movie? A social satire? A cry of rage? Yes. Even more impressive, it was that rarest of movies in this increasingly bye-bye-big-screen century: a true cultural touchstone.
Peele’s skills as movie Mixmaster are very much evident in “Nope,” which manages to combine sci-fi, horror, and western (most of it takes place on a California ranch), with bits of bleak comedy and a vein of family drama. Peele’s simultaneous fondness for big ideas and bloody set pieces makes it easy to overlook how acute he is about domestic relations. That’s true of his second movie, “Us” (2019), as well as “Get Out.” In “Nope,” this takes the form of the sometimes-fractious relationship between siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer).
OJ runs the family horse ranch, in Agua Dulce, Calif. Agua Dulce means “sweet water,” a nice joke on the parched hills that ring the ranch. “This whole valley comes up as blurry on Google maps,” a suspicious visitor says (he’s suspicious in both senses). “You’re really tucked away here.” What better place for something strange and inexplicable to happen . . . but that’s getting ahead of things.
When some white people hear OJ’s name they do a double take. Emerald explains that it stands for Otis Jr. Their visible relief is a very Jordan Peele moment. The ever-magisterial Keith David briefly appears as Otis Sr. His son’s stolidity masks a deep disquiet. There’s nothing masked about Emerald. She’s sparky and spunky and a real handful.
Part of OJ’s disquiet has to do with something he’s seen in the sky over the ranch. You recall that reference to strangeness and inexplicability. “It was big,” he tells Emerald. “How big?” she asks. “I don’t know.” He pauses. “It was fast. Too fast. Too quiet to be a plane.”
They go to a big-box electronics store to buy surveillance equipment. “Maybe you’re in a UFO hot spot,” jokes Angel (Brandon Perea), the guy at checkout. When he goes to the ranch to help with installation, he begins to reconsider.
Adjacent to the ranch is a rinky-dink western-themed amusement park, Jupiter’s Claim. Considering the importance that things in the sky have in “Nope,” that name is as grimly droll as Agua Dulce is. Steven Yeun plays the owner. Kaluuya, Palmer, and Perea are fine to varying degrees; she can be a bit much, frankly. Yeun’s performance is a cut above. Maybe those seasons on “The Walking Dead” gave him an affinity for a differently ordered reality.
Peele realizes that the trickiness of this story benefits from straightforwardness of presentation. His direction is unshowy, which is very different from pedestrian. When was the last time you saw a scary movie that waited 90 minutes before the first use of handheld camera? The clean, clear, unsentimental look of Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography makes the menace and mystery that “Nope” increasingly trades in that much more menacing and mysterious. Sound is used no less effectively — and even more unsettlingly.
Michael Abels, who did the music for “Get Out” and “Us,” offers an excellently varied score: from dread-inducing industrial sounds to brief, just-right pastiches of Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone. At its heart, “Nope” really is a western. The presence of those names also suggests just how steeped in other movies “Nope” is, though without being in any way derivative.
There hasn’t been as movie-loving a movie since “Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood” (2019). That movie love is there in how the Haywood house looks like it was built by the same carpenters responsible for the Bates family’s digs, in “Psycho.” It’s there in how Eadweard Muybridge’s first “motion picture” of animal locomotion figures in Haywood family history. The fact that it was a Black man riding the horse seen in that epochal snippet of film very much speaks to Peele’s larger concerns. It’s there in the film’s final image, which as a concluding western tableau ranks with John Wayne framed by the doorway at the end of “The Searchers.” Truly.
Peele’s imaginativeness can get the better of him. An extended flashback involving a TV chimpanzee gone blood simple — trust me, you don’t want an explanation — surely makes sense to the director but it won’t to most viewers. The final 45 minutes are alternately too much and on the button (another example of Peele as movie Mixmaster). Michael Wincott plays a filmmaker enlisted to help investigate the goings on. The character would be over the top even if he didn’t at one point intone the lyrics to “Purple People Eater.” It is pretty funny how much Wincott looks like Oracle’s Larry Ellison. And the director’s name, Antlers Holst, is a two-fer, nodding to a crucial animal artifact in “Get Out” and the composer whose best-known work is “The Planets.” Jupiter’s isn’t the only claim.
From start to finish, you don’t know what’s coming next in “Nope.” When was the last time you saw a movie where that was true? “Nope” is deeply strange, and Jordan Peele knows exactly what he’s doing with that strangeness. It’s designedly strange. It’s coherently strange. Even that blood-simple chimp feels right somehow, despite seeming to make no sense whatsoever. That may be the key to Peele’s Mixmaster prowess: He brings such consistent intelligence to bear on what’s otherwise unreachably instinctual.
Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 130 minutes. R (language, violence/bloody images).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.