Jordan Peele’s Nope is arguably about a lot of different things. The primary characters are all obsessed with fame, whether they have it and don’t want it, are seeking it as a means to an unrelated end, or crave it for its own sake. They’re all chasing a mystery with little thought for the consequences – haunted by a UFO that’s clearly abducting animals and people, they work to bring evidence of its existence to other people, but without considering the possible costs. As critics have pointed out, that serves as a handy metaphor for everything from irresponsible journalism to click-hungry social media stars trying to commodify every aspect of life. There are a number of running themes in Nopefrom the burden of the unknowable to the way the obsession with spectacle dominates modern culture.
But yet another running theme throughout the movie is the different ways people cope with and process tragedy. The main characters are all struggling with tragedies that have come to define them. OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) is dealing with the slow financial ruin of his family’s farm and the death of his beloved father. His sister di lei, Emerald (Keke Palmer), is navigating her estrangement from their father di lei, and her di lei own failure di lei to show him up by forging a successful, independent Hollywood career.
Angel (Brandon Perea) isn’t as clearly defined, but he’s obviously hungry for some kind of meaning or direction, and sees his dead-end job in a rural big-box electronics store as a failure he needs to escape. And cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) has all the fame he wants, but it’s left him unsatisfied and bitter. In Nopelife has disappointed everybody, to the point where they see a menacing alien predator as an opportunity for change rather than as the lethal threat it really is.
But the biggest tragedy in Nope, the one that defines the theme, is former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun). Jupe has plenty of things in common with his fellow UFO-hunters, from his thwarted ambitions to the game face he puts on his disappointments of him. But he’s the only one of them who spends the movie lying to himself and to other people in ways that truly matter. And he’s the only one who turns his personal tragedy into a collective, cataclysmic one.
[Ed. note: Major spoilers ahead for Nope.]
Some viewers have been frustrated by the lack of clearly drawn connections between Jupe’s childhood trauma on the set of a 1990s family sitcom called Gordy’s Home and events around the UFO. In flashbacks, Peele shows how the show’s central character, a chimpanzee named Gordy, was startled by a series of popping balloons on set and viciously attacked several of his human co-stars di lui. Jupe was unharmed but frozen with fear as the bloodied chimp maimed and mauled other people in front of him. For an added trauma, when Gordy calmed down and gently approached Jupe, offering a friendly fist bump, a late-arriving rescuer shot Gordy to death, splattering Jupe with the chimp’s blood.
The way Jupe’s past affects his present may feel obscure because he never lays out his motivations in a clear monologue. He’s too paralyzed by terror to speak in the flashback scenes, and too cool and controlled in the present to reveal much to the outside world. But it’s clear that events on the show left an indelible mark on him. In quiet moments, he stares into space and replays that trauma in his mind di lui, while telling everyone he’s fine. He plays the past off lightly, showing visitors his Gordy’s Home memorabilia and complimenting the Saturday Night Life sketch about the chimp attacks, but Peele gives the audience a glimpse of the echoing chaos in his head, and shows how little it matches his serene surface.
We know Jupe has built a comfortable, positive life for himself as an adult: He seems to be an authentically good and giving partner and father, and his wife and three kids are enthusiastic participants in the shows at his little Western-flavored theme park. But we also know he’s a skillful liar, capable of smiling in OJ’s face and casually agreeing that OJ can eventually buy back the well-trained horses he’s been selling Jupe to keep his ranch financially stable – even though Jupe has been feeding those horses to the UFO. Jupe was a child actor, and he’s apparently kept his abilities di him for pretense alive.
And he ultimately uses those abilities to get dozens of people killed in a horrifically painful and grotesque way, including himself, his entire family, his former Gordy’s Home crush and co-star, and a few dozen strangers who have the bad luck to come to his theme park. It’s left to the audience to decide whether Jupe’s childhood tragedy with Gordy left him feeling untouchable because he came through it safely, such that he’s willing to put out bait to attract a gigantic, mysterious monster to come eat live animals in his back yard.
It’s just as possible that the same childhood trauma left him queasily fascinated with lethal, unpredictable animals and the power they represent, and that the way he’s courting the UFO is meant to parallel his interrupted fist bump with Gordy – he’s reaching out to something capable of tremendous harm and making contact where other people wouldn’t dare to. It’s possible he sees himself as brave and daring rather than charmed. It’s even possible that both these things are true.
The ambiguity of Jupe’s relationship with the UFO, and the ways it connects with the events around Gordy, all come back to that theme of dealing with tragedy and trauma. Trauma survivors can externalize their experiences in a thousand ways, from processing it through therapy and discussion to passing it on to the next generation, but even so, it’s largely an internal process that everyone handles differently. In Nope, OJ keeps his traumas internal, joining a dangerous quest to document the UFO without discussing how he feels about it. Emerald discusses her trauma di lei, trying to offload the guilt onto OJ because of his part di lei in it. Angel shoehorns his way into other people’s lives to try to steal their glory; Antlers charges out alone to seek a satisfaction he doesn’t want to share with anyone else.
But Jupe turns his into a one-sided relationship with an alien creature that doesn’t care about him and sees him only as a source of food – and eventually, as food himself. He’s so defined by a past tragedy that he walks right into a bigger one – and kills dozens of people in the process. It’s evident that he doesn’t know how to talk about his pain di lui the way Emerald does – even in the middle of one flashback to the past, he tells his wife that he’s fine and that everything’s going smoothly. It’s evident that he doesn’t want to share it with other people, except in a form he’s reshaped and rigidly controlled into something else entirely: a tame little museum version of his past, with all the confusion and terror combed away and replaced with neat little glass boxes.
But it’s also evident that of everyone in Nope, he’s carrying around the bloodiest, most savage, and most abrupt trauma, and the one least capable of being undone. OJ might eventually salvage the ranch; Emerald can never reconnect with her father di lei, but she can at least reconnect with the brother who so closely emulates him, and with the ranch that connected them all. Angel can find his way out of his dead-end life of him; Antlers appears to take control and seize exactly what he wanted. But Jupe can’t bring Gordy back. The best he can do is control and reshape the narrative around Gordy – and reach out to another dangerous creature to show how it might be controlled and cared for, in spite of its potential for violence.
And because he makes those choices, Jupe is the only one of Nope‘s protagonists who cuts off all his options, spreads his trauma to the people he loves, and dies aware of how his choices all went wrong. He isn’t exactly a villain, certainly not compared to the actual killer in Nope. But he is the film’s greatest tragedy. He’s a mute witness to a moment of horror who chooses to stay mute about it – and in the process, make it far worse. Nope carries a lot of messages about the price of fame and the dangers of chasing it. But one of its strongest messages is that denying and internalizing trauma never has a positive or useful outcome. It’s far more likely to erupt and even expand, even from people who have the best intentions in keeping it under wraps.