opens with an off-screen conversation. It carries through the opening credits, a jubilant exchange between a group of people that suddenly turns sour. Screams become shrieks; shrieks become the guttural howls of a wild animal. The credits cut to a scene of chaos, what looks to be the empty soundstage for a television show taping. Empty, save for a small body on the stage, mostly concealed by a couch off to the side amidst the aftermath of maelstrom, and a chimpanzee. The body lies motionless on the ground with only a leg visible to the camera. There is a smattering of blood on the leg and the shoe, just like the blood masking the muzzle of the chimp dawdling around nearby, its fists slathered in gore. The animal is exhausted, but you get the sense that it’s not quite finished with its work.
In Nope, director Jordan Peele creates a horror film within a horror film. In his story about two Black Hollywood horse wranglers who lose their father to a mysterious, airborne accident (leading to the discovery that a menacing force hangs above the clouds looking for its next meal), Peele tells another story. It’s the story of an exploited animal that lashed out in fear, catalyzed death and tragedy, and paved the way for one of its victims to repeat the cycle of exploitation for the price of a ticket. It synthesizes the themes Peele is exploring with his third feature, including the state of modern movie-making, blockbusters and the cost of submitting to the Hollywood machine. And at the center of it all, the film’s guiding anchor, is a little chimpanzee: Gordy, who is innocent of his crimes.
Through Steven Yeun’s character, carnival huckster Ricky “Jupe” Park, we eventually gain the full context for Nope’s opening sequence. As a child, Jupe was an actor who starred in a fictional, Goonies-adjacent adventure in the ‘90s that launched his career in a way it didn’t quite for his co-stars. Jupe went on to star in a television sitcom in 1996 called Gordy’s Home, about a family who just so happened to have a friendly chimp as one its members. That is, until disaster struck in 1998. How did disaster strike? Emerald (Keke Palmer) certainly wants to know, after Jupe lets her and her brother OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) into his secret back room full of Gordy’s Home memorabilia—even some trinkets from the disastrous “Gordy’s Birthday” episode. The sibling ranchers visit Jupe to sell their horses to his Western carnival, Jupiter’s Claim, in the wake of their father’s death, and inadvertently get a sneak peek at what remains of a tragic moment, lost in time.
But Jupe dances around the subject. He laughs it off, doesn’t directly address it even as Emerald gently presses him. She wants to know the truth; what is Jupe hiding? Jupe acknowledges that Gordy went a little crazy on that fateful day, but stops short of giving Emerald and OJ the full picture. He deflects by reminiscing on a Saturday Night Live sketch that satirized the accident, gushing about the perfection that was Chris Kattan in the role of Gordy (a moment that plays to Yeun’s comedic strengths). And then he drops the subject, and so do Emerald and OJ. Even still, we can tell Emerald can’t shake the image of a child’s shoe with a single patch of blood at the toe, upright and encased in a glass box for display.
Poor Gordy and his vicious outburst take clear inspiration from the real-life story of Travis the chimp: An animal actor who mauled the friend of his owner in a sudden, unforeseen fit of rage in 2009, Travis was subsequently shot and killed. The “Gordy’s Birthday” sequences in Nope are, by a mile, the film’s most horrific, from the simple opening shot of a blood-slathered Gordy and an immobile child’s body to the unnerving Gordy memorabilia scene, where brief cuts to the incident, chilling music and a lingering camera create a profound sense of unease. As proven by both Get Out and Us, Peele intimately understands the fundamental strength in horror that’s left unseen. By respecting the audience and showing restraint when it comes to revealing certain images, the audience is forced to fill in these spaces left intentionally empty. Considering what could have happened is far scarier than having the mauling fully, visually articulated, because what we imagine to have happened could always, always be worse.
And like Travis, Gordy’s outburst and bloody demise were spurred by a random, unintended split second: A popped birthday balloon, loud enough to throw the animal off its equilibrium. Lashing out in fear for its safety and against the humans trying haphazardly to control it, Gordy turned violent. Young Jupe (Jacob Kim), hid under a prop table, petrified, hoping to not be seen. Until he is. But the chimp only reaches his clenched hand out for a fist bump, Gordy and Jupe’s signature move on their sitcom. Before the two can touch skin, Gordy is shot down and killed in front of Jupe. The unimaginable trauma gained from this day is clear in adult Jupe’s reaction to Emerald’s questioning, in how he answers her questions without answering them at all, and forces a grin even as the camera, a reflection of Jupe’s suppressed memories, cuts quickly and briefly back to scenes of past horror.
In the present day, Jupe and the late Gordy represent the cycle of Hollywood exploitation. Peele articulates this in the same way that abuse can be passed down from parent to offspring. Jupe’s own adult manifestation of the “Gordy’s Birthday” incident is to exploit another animal, a more dangerous animal, at the expense of the safety of audiences, in the same way that Gordy was once exploited at the expense of the “Gordy’s Home” cast—with Jupe’s mangled former co-star happily seated in attendance. Even in the way that Emerald and OJ’s horse is provoked by the crew of the commercial shoot that rented it, and acts out in fear. The film industry is founded on repeated toxic behaviors passed down from generation to generation—as also seen in the treatment of Emerald and OJ by the all-white commercial crew—forcing the gears in the money-making machine to turn in spite of, and because of, the casualties. Nope’s most horrifying sequences are paradoxically the most heartbreaking, like when Travis the chimp, a wild animal forced into domestication, enacted unintended violence on those that attempted to contain it. Of course, as Nope demonstrates, some things can’t be tamed no matter how many people pay the price of admission.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.