It all comes back to the shoe. Before we even know what we’re looking at when Jordan Peele’s sci-fi horror movie Nope opens — or before we know what we’re listening to, though the eventual chorus of screams give us some ideas — we’re staring at a blue Ked, perfectly balanced on its heel.
To put it mildly, the few shots we get of this shoe in Nope are important. If you feel a need for clear-cut explanations for Nope and its endless enigmas, the opening sequence and its carefully balanced shoe is what solidifies the film’s ideas behind Gordy’s fate, and what it means for both Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) and OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) on their parallel journeys.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Nope.]
We arrive in the film in the wake of the attack: The chimpanzee Gordy (played through motion-capture by Terry Notary) assaulted his human co-stars in the middle of filming a scene for the 1990s sitcom Gordy’s Home, and at least one body lies nearby. As Gordy rests against the end of the set’s colorful couch, blood coating his hands and face, the shoe is standing upright just behind him.
Writer-director Jordan Peele returns to this moment two more times, though he’s economic about how and when. First, we briefly see Ricky (played in his younger incarnation by Jacob Kim), hiding under a table, catching his breath while he looks on in fear. When we come back, the two memories finally merge into one: The opening shot of the film was from Ricky’s perspective, as he keyed in on the shoe before focusing on the bloodied chimpanzee, taking a breather after mauling Ricky’s co-stars.
Based on how grown-up Ricky talks about the incident, he at least pretends he’s found a way to make peace with an event that would, as he tells it, go on to become a national incident, and seemingly stalled out his nascent Hollywood career. Though Peele cuts these flashbacks into placid scenes with Ricky lost in thought, his face rarely betrays any lingering trauma. It’s almost alarming how stoic he can be as he relives such an upset. And the key to whatever healing he’s experienced seems to be in what he — and he alone — witnessed as the scene played out in full.
What the shoe stands for
Nope loops back on itself a few times, making it clear how OJ figures out the alien’s M.O. The Gordy’s Home incident isn’t revisited as explicitly as that, but it ultimately feels reminiscent once we get Ricky’s full memory of the event. Balloons on the set of Gordy’s Home hit the stage lights and exploded on impact, startling the chimp and sending him into a frenzy.
After savagely beating his co-stars, the chimp settles itself, resting near one of its victims, even attempting to rouse the woman it just attacked. When the chimpanzee spots Ricky, it seems peaceful and inquisitive — and when it’s shot to death by someone offscreen while offering Ricky a fist-bump, the experience seems to solidify for Ricky as one where an animal was unpredictable and dangerous, but still meant well.
That moment is seared into Ricky’s mind, and perfectly preserved in his little office museum. The perfectly balanced shoe helps snap Ricky into place as someone who believes he witnessed something special — a “bad miracle,” as the script puts it. Maybe, instead of being just a freak accident, the chimpanzee represented something greater than either of them. The traumatic incident comes to loom in Ricky’s mind as a reason wild animals should be revered, even worshiped. So when his theme park, Jupiter’s Claim, gets a visit from a wild alien, what choice does he have but to use his carnival to spread the gospel?
Nope directly contrasts that with OJ, who grew up around unruly animals that it was his job to tame. As a horse trainer, he knows that animals are worthy of our respect. But it’s not part of a grand design, or born from a special relationship with the horse. It’s an animal, and it could kill you — but it can be tamed and worked with, if you know what you’re doing.
While it may seem as if the Jupiter’s Claim plot line doesn’t resolve much about the alien itself, with just a few lines, even fewer scenes, and some incredible acting by Yeun, we see the stark difference between Ricky (and why he ends up not only dying, but in a way sacrificing around 40 people to the alien) and OJ, who ultimately bests the creature along with his family. Between his limited experience with wild animals and the upright shoe, Ricky believes animals should be cuddled and prized, even if they’re predatory and unpredictable — maybe even especially if they’re predatory and unpredictable. He believes these moments were meant for him — and possibly that just as he was with Gordy, he’s blessed in some way, and will come through his encounters safely.
But OJ knows the truth: No matter where predators come from, they’re not incomprehensible. They just need to learn how to heel.