This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Mitch Capps’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
A buddy of mine got ahold of a cheap fisheye camera when we were 18-19 and naturally we decided we needed to shoot a film. Consummate filmmakers that we were, we cobbled together a plot as we went. A droning suspense about a hitchhiker…with a TWIST ending.
After we edited it together, we felt the film was missing a certain je ne sais quoi. I had an idea. I pulled from my shelf a big red volume of the 2009 edition of Bartlett’s Book of Familiar Quotations and went a-huntin’. After five minutes, this:
“I waive the quantum of the sin,
The hazard of concealing:
But, oh! it hardens deep within,
And petrifies the feeling.”
That’s a re-up on Robert Burns’s “Epistle to a Young Friend” (1786). I felt it had just the gravitas we needed to elevate our short film to high art. We whipped up a title card, white Courier font over black.
That’s how I imagine Nahum 3:6 (600s B.C.ish) got on the front end of Jordan Peele’s latest horror entry. Nothing ensures that your audience (me) will excavate exactingly the theological nothings from your movie like putting a bible verse somewhere in it (hand/feet wounds are a contender). Here it is:
“And I will cast abominable filth upon thee, and make thee vile, and will set thee as a spectacle.”
It was a nice excuse to pour over those ancient words once more. It’s been some time since I read the grim forecast of this particular prophet. So long, I forgot it was Nineveh he was writing about. Certainly the spectacle here is one of judgment. A source of shame.
The narrative is situated in the world of film and television with a chilling opening sequence featuring a trained chimp gone rogue on the set up a throwback sitcom before a live studio audience. The next scene follows with another tragic death. This time it’s a freak accident slaying the owner of a horse training company which specializes in equestrian stunt work for movies. Two deaths revolving around trained movie critters.
OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) takes over his dead father’s business aided in part by his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer). They are the descendants of the fictional Alistair E. Haywood said to be the jockey pictured in what they seem to be conflating with the zoopraxiscope project Sallie Gardner at a Gallop which photographer Eadweard Muybridge cooked up on hire to settle a bet. The footage is from the same photographer for a project called Animal Locomotion. Peele used its “Plate 626” for its higher quality.
They struggle to keep up the same professionalism as their father. The horse reacts violently when a chrome ball is passed in front of his eyes. This mirrors the moment when the chimp snaps out of his domesticity due to some external sensory experience. OJ and Em are ultimately fired causing him to have to sell another horse to Jupe (Steven Yeun), the owner of a Wild West amusement park and former child star on the aforementioned sitcom gone south.
The story stays squarely in the realm of motion capture as the protagonists catch site of a UFO and seek to procure footage of it setting up a full surveillance on the ranch with the help of local tech stop employee Angel (Brandon Perea). By the time OJ gets up close and personal with it he realizes it is not a spacecraft but a creature in itself, resembling a camera’s aperture.
I start to get the picture. Interesting, isn’t it, that we use the verb “capture” when it comes to photography. Funny too how there’s all these old legends about aboriginals believing a camera could steal their soul. In the scariest scene of the movie, when the creature begins to feed on onlookers, it is a hellish portrait indeed. And indeed one hell of a show.
This intermingling of spectacle and judgment is intriguing. It makes for the most compelling Peele entry simply because the examination is as equally inward as outward. He has said that exploitation is inherent to the film industry. I don’t know if I’d go so far, leaning instead towards neutrality in art, the sort of “whatever doesn’t proceed from faith is sin” manner of thought, but I get what he means and completely agree with him when he says that mankind is always in danger of becoming addicted to spectacle. Which, again, in this case is that mysterious addiction to our own destruction.
So it’s possible that when we participate in filmmaking without “discerning the body” so to speak that we “eat and drink judgment on [ourselves]”, again, only so to speak, not having done everything, as it were, unto the Lord. The camera does in fact steal the soul. Watch the TMZ guy who would rather die than lose the shot. Or Antlers (Michael Wincott) who would die to get the shot. These are extreme examples.
Because film is amoral (I think), animalism is an okay metaphor. Some might suspect that it could only really mean to be to their advantage. They feed it, but it isn’t satisfied and eventually comes for the hand that feeds. Still others suspect that they can tame it. Behavior is predictable. Rule number one for OJ? Don’t look at it in the eye (read: don’t spike the camera…there actually is a wonderful moment when Emerald is confronting the alien, that she looks dead at the camera. A nice maneuver).
The infernal nature of Jupe’s life speaks to the inescapability of spectacle addiction. He grew up on film and movie sets and as an adult he built one around himself to live in. Always believing he has tamed the mechanism to his advantage and always being swallowed ever deeper. Yeun says if his character, “This is his fever dream, his prison, that he doesn’t know he’s constructed.” He subs in the show for reality and it destroys him. “Can’t stop,” so the Chili Peppers would say, “addicted to the shindig.”
Why limit it to film? Whenever we gather our own limited expression together in our own interest or to exploit or curse then we’ve sat saddle on the unruly horse. “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue” (Jm. 3:7-8). We generate sentences and paragraphs and ideas and “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37).
And it isn’t as though we need to train a camera on ourselves to have our whole life come back to bite us. What about that eerie bit in John’s Revelation: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.” Are we making a spectacle of ourselves even now such that we would “be ashamed at his appearing?” In this way the creature and its threat is simply that it captures us as we are. When OJ and the alien do face off it appears to be flashing photographs of him. Is it his self-sacrificial sense of duty which allows him to emerge unscathed?
So there’s the sense that the creature is a type of “book of rememberance” like you get in Malachi. Or some odd amalgam of biblical and mythological angel. Peele is said to have based the design of the alien in its final form off of the angels in Evangelion. But their coming in judgment is a biblical notion especially in relation to a judgment of shame:
“Let those be ashamed and dishonored who seek my life; Let those be turned back and humiliated who devise evil against me. Let them be like chaff before the wind, With the angel of the Lord driving them on. Let their way be dark and slippery, With the angel of the Lord pursuing them” (Ps. 35:4-6).
But if I’m really gonna wear my tin foil hat I’m pitching the alien as a banished angel. Charging about in nonsensical vanity in an attempt to restore himself to past glory. He is a satan hoping to recapture all that made him what he was. For instance, “every precious stone adorned you” including “emerald” and “onyx and jasper” (OJ) (Ez. 28:13). You might try to lump Jupe’s wife Amber into that too. Therein his pursuit of the central siblings. And for horns he steals up Antlers. (I know the devil horns thing is extra biblical unless you do two big somersaults. One is to tip your hat to the angel described as having 1/4 the head of an ox [Ez. 1:10], the other is to appeal to the “exalted horn” imagery in say Ps. 89, 148, et al.) The creature’s pursuit of Angel is more obvious.
And Jupe (Jupiter) is the chief god of the earth. Of course it is the position he wants to gobble up:
“You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’”
(Notice that cloud). I know the Morning Star reference in the same chapter is more commonly associated with Venus, but we’re close. Now think of an angel and how “the sound of his works [are] like the sound of a multitude” (Dan. 10:5-6) and you’ve got a motive for consuming the rest of the dusty township. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).
And who can finally expose this critter for who he really is? “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid;for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Is. 12:2). Ah the well. The whole “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again” sorta thing (Jn. 4:14).
Still here? Wanna hear my loonier-still take on the upright shoe? Naturally it goes up with my wanting to be exalted “above the stars of God.” Watch the teaser for Nope featuring the opening theme to the fictional sitcom. The parents on the show (the Houston’s, of have-a-problem fame) are astronauts and spend all of their time discerning how to get into space. Watch the father waltz downstairs in a Empire State Building outfit. Mikey and Gordy peer up at the stars together from a telescope.
But what happens with the ego balloon inflates and ascends? It pops. And that’s too much for Gordy left to recognize he’s riding on the coattails of a higher species (not unlike when the mighty horse who saw himself in a mirror and realized he was all reined up all along). He rages and destroys. He puts himself in the place of God. When he sees Jupe behind the veil, he extends his hand out for a fist bump. The image of the hands coming together recalls Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” He’s then shot in the head.
Is this the same pride which prevents Cain from being his brother’s keeper, or the selfish brother who won’t take his widowed sister-in-law into his household’s care? She “shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother's house.’ And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.’” Or as I like to call it, “Gordy’s Home.” Filth cast, spectacle made.
All of this is really too stupid for words, but I’ll keep it in the same way we didn’t delete that short film we made as teens. No matter how many shots had the cameraman’s thumb in it or how non-sequitur the Scottish poet’s quotation was or how canned the music or contrived the dialogue or self-serious the themes. Every movie is a miracle. Even if it’s a bad miracle.
This was an entertaining time at the movies with great performances and engaging moments leaving one with lots to mull over. Humorous, tense, tender, and even at times terrifying.