Gordy the chimpanzee is the key to “No”
It takes a big imagination to dream up a movie monster that has never been seen before, and even bigger to score your biggest scares without it. Jordan Peele does both in Nope. In a film about a carnivorous amoeba from the sky, the scene that will really leave audiences petrified and shaken is the one featuring a much more ordinary monster. We are, of course, talking about Gordy the chimpanzee.
In the world of Nope, Gordy’s gory rampage is the stuff of showbiz legend. We learn this from one of the survivors, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who, as an adult, runs a kitsch Old West theme park town called Jupiter’s Claim. Jupe is best remembered for her stint on a popular and short-lived 90s sitcom titled Gordy’s house! which was quickly canceled after her simian star broke and caused what Jupe describes, with uncanny detachment, as “six and a half minutes of havoc”.
Peele may have been inspired for this subplot by a real-life incident that made international headlines: the horrific 2009 mutilation of a woman by a chimpanzee with a TV concert synopsis. Either way, the writer-director captures the fascination of car accidents with these kinds of public tragedies, built on a refusal to acknowledge the potential consequences of working with wild animals. It actually opens Nope with a quick glimpse of the carnage – a shot of Gordy wandering over the TV he ransacked, covered in blood. This flash of implied violence gives the film an immediate jolt of danger, and Peele continues to tease the whole scene with shots of young Jupe (Jacob Kim) cowering under a table as Gordy stalks the set. (Building the incident in our minds before showing it to us is one of the choices that recalls the ingenious suspense of Jaws.)
It’s about halfway to Nope that Peele finally grants a sustained flashback to the onslaught, a masterclass miniature horror within the film. Most of the scene takes place from Jupe’s limited point of view, with Peele locking the camera tight and low to reinforce the sense of helplessness. Like the boy, all we can do is bear witness, stunned and frozen, as Gordy (played via motion capture by Terry Notary, to avoid the kind of on-set incident that’s dramatized) brutalizes his castmates. That we don’t see him punch and then devour a preteen girl’s face — an act of indescribable violence that Peele strategically obscures by blocking — doesn’t make it any less gruesome. If anything, the version planted in our heads by the implication and cruelly evocative sound design might be even worse.
Peele focuses on the kind of absurd details that would surely stay in Jupe’s mind forever; the actual opening shot, before Gordy falls into frame, is of a single, incredibly balanced, abandoned shoe standing on the nearly empty soundstage, decorated with a single drop of blood. There’s dark comedy in those mind-blowing few minutes, all about the madness of mistaking a chimpanzee for an actor who can be controlled or reasoned with. Gordy, all dressed up in his little birthday hat, punches an absurd nightmarish figure – the very image of failed domestication. It’s worth noting that the two actors that we see him wild try to beg him by his fictional name. They always see a sitcom character, even if he cuts them to a pulp.
The scene, however, is more than an inspired detour. While its inclusion in Nope may seem alien at first glance, the self-contained exercise in macabre suspense is tied to the entire intellectual architecture of the film. Almost as disturbing as the actual flashback is how the adult Jupe talks about it earlier in the film – a scene that darkens considerably in retrospect. As Peele introduces it, Jupe is a celebrity who dined on this horrible thing that happened to her, enjoying her memories and harboring a macabre public obsession with them via a shrine to her time. Gordy’s house (including this lost shoe, now locked behind glass). Like Dieter Dengler, the former Navy pilot and prisoner of war escapee at the center of two Werner Herzog films, he has almost entirely separated himself from the defining trauma of his life, converting it into a repeated anecdote.
In fact, Jupe’s dissociation from the event is so extreme that he only talks about it through the prism of a Saturday Night Live sketch about it. “They pulled it off better than I ever could,” he says, before launching into funny and unsettling eulogies – a brilliantly written and performed monologue that fuels NopeAmerica’s larger ideas about America’s habit of abstracting trauma and horror on show. That Gordy’s attack happened on a television is pointed out. There are many horrific things – including the violence against black Americans during the Civil Rights era and the events of 9/11 – that we as a country have seen unfold on live television. Nope suggests that the camera has become a filter through which we process these events: chewing them up and spitting them out, digesting what we can and expelling the rest, much like the film’s sentient flying saucer after a feeding frenzy.
And what is Jean Jacket, as our heroes come to call the alien beast, if not a mirror image of Gordy, twisted by legend into something larger and even more destructive? Skirt, like the producers of Gordy’s house!, ignores the nature of the animal. Or, as OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) puts it, “He tried to tame a predator.” (The fact that the protagonists are horse trainers with a deep respect for the animals they train is certainly no coincidence.)
The dark fatalism of Jupe’s subplot is that it’s cyclical. Because he never really dealt with his trauma – even if he made it his whole identity, a story to be exploited forever – he is doomed to repeat it. It’s the horrifying power of his final scene out there in the desert, inadvertently luring the monster in to feed on him, his family, his audience, his crew, and even his horribly disfigured former teammate. Gordy but left alive only to be killed in a bizarre and supernatural replay of the incident. Is Peele tackling the death cycle of American violence, endlessly perpetuated by a nation unwilling to treat atrocities as anything but something to watch?
Maybe. There’s a lot to chew Nope, a genre thriller that also tackles topics like legacy, hustle culture, the forgotten role of black artists in Hollywood, and cinema as both a desperate grab for the transcendent and a beast that will swallow you up. (and your work and your dreams) whole. Whether all of these ideas mesh cohesively is debatable, though the film’s inability to be boiled down to a single clear thesis is what makes it a welcome alternative to the inherently dissolvable metaphorical horror that’s been all the rage these days. these days. Regardless of the broader interpretations, Nope has moments of terrible and visceral power. And nothing is more terrible or visceral – or meaningful – than those few unmissable minutes in Gordy’s house.
AA Dowd is a Chicago-based writer and editor. His work has appeared in publications such as The audiovisual club, Vultureand rolling stone. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.