Weird Wild West: On Jordan Peele’s “Nope”
By Jacob WaltersSeptember 24, 2022
Stray sightings. Vague visitations. Hovering horses. Jordan Peele’s film is an offspring of the Weird West, situating itself in a long media history that warps the wildness of the West and mines the genre not to limn but to pervert society’s aspirations. Weird Westerns are a breed of speculative fiction with roots dating to the 1930s, when comic books and short stories increasingly turned to and distorted the woolier corners of the US West. Although typically more interested in playing into than challenging the exoticization of the frontier, comics like Weird Tales understood the West to be not only a physical space but also a set of mutable assumptions about the American spirit.
In cinema, the Weird Western has a long, subterranean history, mostly in B-pictures with titles like Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966), only occasionally surfacing for mainstream air. Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) turns the frontier dream into a murderous theme park. Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) figures what Richard Slotkin calls the West’s myth of “regeneration through violence” as a cannibalistic free-for-all. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) fashions a romantic canvas for outsider lament that connects vampirism to industrial machinery exsanguinating the landscape. In a subset of films known as “Acid Westerns,” like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970), the Western becomes a nonrepresentational limbo, or, as in Monte Hellman’s The Shooting (1966), an ouroboros. In the latter, a man wanders through the desert, on the hunt, only to find a mirror of himself. The frontier becomes a space of self-flagellation masked as spiritual rebirth. The Weird Western isn’t even earthbound: John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (2001) figures videotape as a swarm-like potency floating between bodies and taking over settler-colonists’ minds, celluloid be damned.
Likewise, in the waning days of classic Hollywood, television shows like The Twilight Zone (1959–64) and The Wild Wild West (1965–69) literally revived old, derelict film sets by infusing gothic and steampunk aesthetics into the debris of Hollywood’s past. By framing nightmares in the American West, they laid bare the West’s nature as American dreamscape. They suggested that most white Americans already understood how the myth of the West was shot through with fabrication and fantasy, even if they’d rather forget.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Weird Westerns also reveal assumptions about who functions merely as a figment of this fantasy, and who gets to do the dreaming. In animator George Pal’s feature film 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) — an adaptation of Charles G. Finney’s 1935 novel The Circus of Dr. Lao, arguably the first Weird Western novel — white American Tony Randall plays a traveling Chinese circus owner who transforms a Western town into a surrealistic carnival of oddities, curios, and visions. While Randall’s deeply caricatured Asian accent is suggested to be a performative affectation, something Lao has agency over, Lao himself only exists in the film to salvage a white dreamscape. In saving a settler town from the violence of extractive capitalism that the town itself inflicted and is inextricably bound to, Lao uncouples dream from nightmare to preserve and absolve the former.
In a 1966 episode of The Wild Wild West entitled “The Night of the Eccentrics,” the American West is similarly transformed into a stage show, this time under the command of a villainous magician, television becoming a magic trick with fatal consequences. A young, prefame Richard Pryor, in his first TV role, plays one of the magician’s team, a ventriloquist dressed in an exoticizing outfit, marked as outlier to the white henchmen who deal in guns, fists, and knives. In a key moment, lawman protagonist Jim West asks Pryor, “who’s the ventriloquist, and who’s the dummy?” Whether intentional or unintentional, the comment refracts back onto the episode itself. Pryor never speaks on camera — his voice, dubbed in, echoes throughout the room to suggest his ventriloquism — reducing his physical presence to mute object and spectator.
Fittingly, then, when we enter Nope’s present tense, set a few months after Otis Sr.’s unexplainable death, we’re introduced to the film’s strangest landscape: Hollywood, the dream factory. OJ, decked out in cowboy duds, is on a green screen set, an abyss that will be filled in, like Pryor’s voice, “in post.” A dream space for audiences, for OJ it’s a grind: with fewer real horses in films, he’s working the set of a commercial. Back on the ranch, Hollywood’s warped reality refuses to leave him and his buoyant sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) alone. There’s an alien in the sky, and getting photographic proof is the only chance the siblings need to save the family business and preserve their family’s cinematic legacy. OJ and Emerald’s great-great-great-grandfather was the Black jockey photographed by Eadweard Muybridge in the 1887 Animal Locomotion series. Comprising some of the earliest moving pictures, this set of photographs became a key exhibit of the Black body mobilized for scientific research in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an object to be categorized, curated, and contained by images. The jockey’s real-life identity is unknown today, and Peele anoints himself as a filmmaker by cinematically naming him: “Alistair Haywood.” For OJ and Emerald, photographic proof of the alien isn’t just money in the bank; it’s an attempt to turn the camera back on a history that has been erased.
In doing so, Peele asks what happens when people of color wrestle with historically white Western dreamscapes. Can the exclusionary historical nightmare of the American West become a canvas for Black dreams, fantasies, and acts of cinematic speculation as well? Throughout, OJ and Emerald are compared with Korean American entertainer Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child actor and survivor of the chimpanzee incident in 1998, who now runs a Wild West–themed park. For Jupe, who wants to commune with the alien, his effort constitutes an act of transcendental piety. But it is also a potentially fruitless attempt to control the alien, to subdue the intangible, just as his theme park domesticates the American West. Nope ponders whether OJ and Emerald photographing the alien, wrangling cinema for themselves, is any different. Should people of color invest in conventional Hollywood narratives, the film asks? Or should they lay bare the fantasy of the West?
The first option might correct Hollywood’s representational failures but risks “capturing” Black life — banalizing the complex, domesticating the multifaceted, taming the weird, and above all, avoiding the ethical complexities of indexing Blackness. Here, Peele is following in his own footsteps. Peele’s films travel in a long line of horror cinema exploring the relationship between the uncanny and imagery, from Dracula’s lack of self-reflection to Bill Gunn’s elusive, evanescent Black horror film Ganja & Hess (1973), where the commodification of African art by academics is framed as an act of vampirism. In Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, photography is equated with life, offering a clarifying shock back into reality together with a revelation of reality’s strangeness. Kaluuya’s photographer protagonist Chris has a gifted eye, and the film is a test of his ability to see through white lies. His second film, Us, replaces the photograph with a funhouse mirror, warping life in carnivalesque inversion. When protagonist Adelaide wanders into a funhouse (named “Vision Quest,” fronted by a Native American image, its own commodified Weird West), she confronts a doppelgänger in a mirror that is revealed to be a passageway. The doppelgänger draws her into the mirror world, the polymorphic, mutating space of cinema that neither reflects nor transforms life but touches it at an odd, askew angle.
If Get Out figures photography as illuminating and Us treats the mirror as transforming, Nope turns the lens back on itself. The film’s subjects are the histories, hidden and hawked, and the futures, far-flung and forestalled, that have found a home in cinema. On one level, Peele’s new film enacts the prophetic power of cinematic imagery: when the protagonists discover the alien is hiding in a cloud, they only truly notice it there by witnessing it through the mediation of recording technology, even though they’ve seen the cloud for months. Film clarifies and reveals, coaxes reexamination. The idea of a Black Western film hero, even a fictional one, has real value here, defamiliarizing the idea of an all-white West, making it weird. It forces audiences to consider Black cowboys as both deeply historical, in that many Westward travelers were Black, and highly fabricated, in that the figure of the “cowboy” as it appears in many films doesn’t exhaust the complexity of Black life in the Western United States.
But Peele also trespasses on the desire for clarification. As he remarked in a recent interview, clouds may be the first movies: shapeshifting bundles of diaphanous matter that people project meaning onto, glorious vistas hiding shadows in plain sight. Nope’s alien is provoked by the gaze of others, encouraging both speculative intimacy and critical distance. Peele’s paradox is that cinema is both the deceitful cloud and the recording device that reveals it, both the Medusa that turns the viewer to stone and Perseus’ reflective shield that allows one to look in mediated fashion. The very capacity — the characters’, the film’s, and ours — to move narratives from stasis to motion, from fantasy to reality and vice versa, is interrogated.
If this sounds like the kind of symbolism that can conceptualize a film to death, you’re right. This is part of Nope’s game. For Peele’s film, the Weird West — the simultaneity of fabrication and documentary, the spontaneous uncanniness of prefabricated ideas — is what cinema does, is cinema’s form. The film’s counterintuitive strategy is to undermine symbols by overinvesting in them, inviting us to ask how much weight we ask them to bear, how many things cinema can mean at once, how many contradictions it can contain until the film implodes in deeply cinematic fashion. In the process, Peele’s strategy becomes monstrous, inviting and defiling readings, preserving interpretive porousness. The alien’s undulating canvas-mouth figures film as shimmering possibility and devious instability, the capacity of celluloid to take any form, to hold any desire you need — at your own risk.
Only at the end do we realize how Nope’s sly suggestion — that the alien is cinema itself — comes as early as the opening credits. Names appear within a tunnel slowly congealing around us. At the end of the journey is Muybridge’s photo set, a lost treasure that is also co-optable, demanding we reckon with the figure of the Black jockey as a cowboy hero. But does calling him a cowboy reduce him to a conventional cinematic archetype, opening up the past only to claustrophobically close it again? Later, this tunnel is revealed to be the alien’s esophagus, having already ingested us — framed our interpretive capacities — at the film’s beginning.
The coin dropping out of the sky thus dramatizes cinema performing its own Manifest Destiny, money invading a homespun setting that can never be completely separated from capital. The coin becomes the metallic back-spew of Hollywood’s flesh-and-bone grinder. Writing on showman Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Cuban poet José Martí calls the show a “spectacle” that “excites one” to “live within” life’s “bowels.” And in the most Grand Guignol scene, Peele beats The Shining and A Nightmare on Elm Street in the exsanguination department, literalizing Martí’s remark that the crowd left “like blood issuing from veins.” If the alien is a spectacle turning people into pulp and hiding the evidence, Peele reveals what is unassimilable, the debris that cannot be whitewashed, violence laid bare as torrents of human matter from the sky. Film cannot be reduced to a tool for entrenching power dynamics. Something always seeps out, in Nope’s case quite literally.
In his travelogue The Pleasures of Exile (1960), Barbadian writer George Lamming recounts two Ghanaian youths reenacting a Hollywood Western. Performing the film “begins with a bribe,” a facsimile of freedom cheating them of “life” because Black play ends the way it all-too-typically does — arrest — a “new” spectacle ultimately revealing nothing new. For Lamming, American idioms have ingested and transformed global conceptions of freedom, entertainment offering personal transformation and play that refrain from altering the status quo. African American comedian Dick Gregory captures this bribe in his 1972 book No More Lies: “I understand that there will soon be another black cowboy on television, so that the current black cowboy will have somebody to kill.” What, to use Lamming’s term, is the “bribe” at the center of the possibility of a Black cowboy film, the cost it demands? Nope asserts that it lies in the understanding of “Weird” and “West,” exposing the transformative opportunities lost in defining the “normal” Western along classical lines and participating in that vision to subvert it.
Doesn’t, for instance, Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), where a Black rebel escapes police officers through the California desert, suggest its own fugitive West? What about John Singleton’s Boyz n The Hood (1991), where a photograph of Ronald Reagan as a sheriff promising to “clean up” California calls back to his history as a Hollywood cowboy, only for Singleton to “shoot” Reagan’s image with the camera (complete with extradiegetic gunshot sounds), cinema itself in a duel with the neoliberal establishment? Or Charles Burnett’s Watts-set Killer of Sheep (1978) and To Sleep With Anger (1990), which explore the relationship between Southern Black folk currents and California, framing the African American Great Migration as its own frontier folklore?
And then there’s Burnett’s shattering, magisterial short film The Horse (1973), in which a Black boy in the desert lovingly tends to a horse as several white men converse, waiting for the boy’s father to arrive to kill it. The film is deeply unmooring, a Weird West not in its improbability but in that it shows what so many films leaves out: mundanity, recognition of everyday racism, willingness to linger in and expand upon ostensible emptiness, finding darkness in the desert’s light. It stretches the definition of Western by reiterating that the history of the Black diaspora — forced migration to the Western hemisphere — was a real-life Weird West.
Nope’s ranch houses a poster of the Black Western Buck and the Preacher (1972), where Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte lead a wagon train of African American “Exodusters” to Kansas, reminding audiences that free African Americans in the 19th century, cowboy hat or no, were outlaws by virtue of the US legal system. Yet, Nope turns not only to the prophecy of a better future but also to the hard-won fugitivity of two other Black Western outlaws: Thomasine (Vonetta McGee) and Bushrod (Max Julien) from the 1974 film of the same name. Bushrod begins the film taming horses, but when the two cut a path through the Southwest robbing banks, they emerge as skilled self-image cultivators. Thomasine, especially, is deliberate about how she positions herself in photographs so her name is printed first on wanted posters. The film later enacts this self-consciousness in two photomontages that expose the tension between depiction and generation, “making” cinema before our eyes.
For Thomasine and Bushrod, positioning themselves as Western (anti)heroes is rooted in the fantasy of reality. Representation becomes a speculative, conscious, everyday act of reenvisioning. Nope, similarly, is a “revisionist” Western in an unusually literal sense, not exploring the Western in ostensibly more “realistic” ways but asking viewers to attune to vision itself. This, and the presence of Michael Wincott as grizzled, Ahab-like cinematographer Antlers Holst, recalls Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), a wild-eyed Western that disfigures the archetypes of settler colonialism via pageant-like artifice. These films share the same goal: exploring the shards of myth that constitute the real, demanding not fact checks but self-critical countermyths.
In this very speculativeness, Nope echoes but departs from another recent meta-movie Weird Western that explores the relationship between image, history, and identity: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). While Nope fabricates to democratize, Tarantino’s film is cinema as necromancy, blissful life bestowed to both the literal dead and the fabric of Old Hollywood. Both films recognize that the point isn’t to preserve things “the way they really were.” Both films make myths. Tarantino, more specifically, makes a classic Hollywood lullaby where a past-his-prime white Western actor achieves his dream of authenticity, where his white stunt double plays out his fantasy of beating Bruce Lee in a fight, and where the Manson Family members are figured as both inauthentic cowboy posse poseurs and a Native American tribe. Tarantino’s film is an often thoughtful, sometimes luminous study on filmmaking, overflowing images, visions, and illusions. Crucial detail is filtered through third parties telling stories and making movies both aloud and in their own minds. However, at the end, the film searches for clarity: struggling film actor Rick Dalton uses a flamethrower from the set of one of his old movies to kill one of the Manson intruders, fire-and-brimstone wrath dished out by cinema itself.
Tarantino makes the impossible possible, spinning the kind of cinematic yarn that Nope unravels.
Peele’s finale fabricates a similarly slippery cowboy duel of a conclusion. The characters unleash a balloon cowboy for a high-flying, “high noon” shootout in the sky, but the cowboy is a distraction, tricking the alien while Emerald gets the “impossible shot” on film, the gunshot replaced by the camera shot. However, it is difficult to tell if the photo Emerald takes would truly convince anyone of alien life. After all, Nope’s alien itself is a CG fabrication. The real “impossible shot,” then, isn’t the alien but the final image of OJ: glimpsed in fog-covered frame, mounted on his favorite horse, taking his place in the tradition of his ancestor. Framed as a spectacle through reverse shots of Emerald’s eyes, it calls back to OJ dutifully standing by a horse on a green screen. Now, though, we have an image of a real Black Western hero, unthinkable history made tangible for the silver screen. Or do we? Emerald photographs the alien through a gimmick camera at the bottom of a (fake) town well, a Western fabrication that photographs wishes and dreams, that points up at visitors to offer them their imagined selves. Whether this finale is self-actualization or self-delusion is left dangling.
At the end of Tarantino’s film, the wannabe cowboy protagonist is granted his dream in a final shot: Hollywood royalty framed as divine ascendance. Nope similarly ponders the possibilities of looking up toward cinema as a kind of savior, something that can both reclaim an erased past and anoint new racially diverse heroes for the 21st century, emerging, at last, less than certain about its value. Attempts to wrangle resolvable meaning, especially by incorporating nonwhite perspectives into traditional frameworks, are rendered dubious at best, dangerously myopic at worst. Nope engages with Hollywood representation in complex and critical ways, but it also believes, like OJ, in the art and act of refusal. It knows when to just say “Nope.”
Jacob Walters is a PhD candidate in the department of history at Cornell University, writing about experimentation, narrative, and African American speculative practice.
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