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With ‘Nope,’ Jordan Peele and Star Keke Palmer Scare Up a New Kind of Final Girl

Double Take: The filmmaker has long proven his ability to reinvigorate classic horror tropes, and his latest feature does that with satisfying style (and a star turn to boot).

NOPE

“Nope”

Universal Pictures

[Editor’s note: The following story contains spoilers for “Nope.”]

This past weekend saw the much-anticipated release of Jordan Peele’s third film, the tantalizingly named UFO thriller “Nope.” Billed by IndieWire’s chief film critic David Ehrlich as a “thoroughly modern popcorn movie for and about viewers who’ve been inundated with — and addicted to — 21st century visions of real-life terror,” the film follows the Haywood siblings (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) and assorted friends and associates as they deal with the appearance of one very big, very bad extraterrestrial threat. 

Both IndieWire executive editor, film Kate Erbland and associate editor Jude Dry delighted in Palmer’s performance as Emerald Haywood, particularly in the ways in which Peele and his star use the role to reinvent that classic horror film trope: the Final Girl. Ahead, the pair break down Palmer’s stellar work, Emerald’s many elements, and what this says about Peele as a filmmaker (and maybe even the genre as a whole). 

KATE ERBLAND: There are a few kinds of characters who don’t tend to make it out of horror joints alive: the funny ones, the Black ones, the mouthy ones, the LGBTQ, the ladies (unless, of course, they are granted vaunted “Final Girl” status, but even that implies there can only be one). Watch enough scary stuff, and it’s pretty easy to clock who is a goner and when they’re gonna be axed, but over the course of three films, filmmaker Jordan Peele has made it very clear he’s a) well-steeped on horror tropes and b) very interested in subverting them for his own clever storytelling.

For “Nope,” Peele does that with serious skill, and that includes the end of the film, which concludes with Keke Palmer’s Emerald Haywood — a funny, mouthy, queer Black lady — not only surviving, but thriving. In horror parlance, she’s a Final Girl, and a damn new one at that. As Palmer herself told me, even she was shocked when she got to the end of Peele’s script to find that Emerald and all her skills and intellect don’t just make it out of the UFO-centric chiller, but are also responsible for bringing the entire thing down. As Palmer noted, it’s not only the kind of role she doesn’t normally see, but the kind of role most actresses don’t: that sort of hero tends to be a dude.

It’s not just refreshing on a genre level, it’s refreshing on a cinematic level, because it doesn’t feel forced. Emerald is the smartest, most forceful character in the film, of course she’s the one who is going to save the day. But not many filmmakers think that way from the start, even in horror spaces, which have given us plenty of very cool Final Girls over the years.

Or, more succinctly, did you expect Emerald to emerge as the film’s Final Girl? And with such style?

NOPE, Keke Palmer, 2022. © Universal Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection

“Nope”

Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

JUDE DRY: It’s interesting you bring up the beginning, because Emerald is everything you mentioned from the moment we meet her. She saunters into the opening scene with a rush of energy, silencing the bustling film set with a quippy speech that sets up her family business while also advertising her many side hustles. Thinking about that scene, she’s introduced not only as the “funny man” but also as both sidekick and foil to her more serious brother OJ (Daniel Kaluuya). When OJ meets with the unnerving faux cowboy played by Steven Yeun, she is seen as interrupting a business deal with her funny questions and asides. It’s this kind of curious kid sister energy that makes her eventual transformation that much more thrilling. With OJ’s stoic silence, she’s clearly the more lovable character, and it’s always fun to see your favorite character save the day.

I also appreciated the casual queerness of the character. In her vintage high tops and faded cutoffs, she is the epitome of effortless tomboyish style. (Props to costume designer Alex Bovaird for not overdoing it.) She mentions a girl she might hit up, nothing serious, and respectfully flirts with a woman offscreen, telling her she looks beautiful. By keeping the focus on Emerald, Peele avoids any extraneous female characters serving as ornamentation. Still, it would have been nice to see her with someone, but that would be a different movie.

It’s almost comical how stoic OJ is, it really seems like Peele was clearing the path for Emerald to shine. What do you think Peele was trying to do with her character?

ERBLAND: I’ve got a few theories, most of which hinge on Peele’s clear affection for his stars. “Get Out” made Kaluuya a household name (and an Oscar nominee!), and it’s obvious how enthusiastic he is about Palmer’s work in this film (not that she necessarily needs the boost, she’s been a star for over a decade). He wrote the role with her in mind, and even knew from the jump that it was going to end with her victorious. With those perimeters, it seemed Peele felt a lot of flexibility, all the better to show off Palmer’s range and her major energy which, as you also mentioned, really serves Emerald.

“Nope”

Universal Pictures/screenshot

I don’t think Peele is so prosaic a filmmaker as to purposely set out to rework our concept of the Final Girl with Emerald, but he ended up doing just that. What I love most about Emerald is that so many different facets of her personality — real, lived-in, believable stuff, like that she is skilled with motorcycles — find a place in her victory. She has to combine everything she was before the events of “Nope” with everything she’s learned during them to emerge a hero. That’s a real pleasure to watch, a product of Peele’s wonderful storytelling and Palmer’s gameness for the role.

Did you expect Emerald to not only live, but save the whole damn day in the process? How did you feel when she did?

DRY: If I’m being honest, I wasn’t surprised that she lived. As you said, Peele has a real affection for his characters, and if we learned anything from “Get Out,” it’s that he will give us the (slightly) more victorious ending than we perhaps deserve. He is trying to upend horror tropes as an afficionado with a deep love and respect for a medium that has as a core tenet that the Black character always dies first. There’s no way he was going to let Emerald or OJ die.

What I did not see coming, however, was the triumphant heroization of Emerald. More than just a gripping riff on genre, however, in his third film Peele widens the scope to deliver a chilling critique of the very act of filmmaking. In watching the characters risk their lives in search of “the impossible shot,” he’s acknowledging the sacrifices, the ego, and the outright lunacy that go into capturing the ephemeral on camera — and hence turning the lens back on himself as filmmaker.

Not only does Emerald destroy the existential threat, but she succeeds where all the men fail — both the experienced cinematographer and the gear head tech bro. Through a mix of cunning, grit, and charisma, she gets the impossible shot. More than a new final girl, she’s the next filmmaker.

A Universal Pictures release, “Nope” is now in theaters.

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