Movies

Jordan Peele Exists in a Space of His Own

We didn’t learn much about Nope from its first trailer. Released the night of the Super Bowl in February, the two-minute spot for this eerie-looking late-summer thriller revealed the principle cast, the small-town ranch setting, and … almost nothing else. A sense of mystery can be a powerful advertising tool; leave prospective viewers dying to know more and they might pay good money to discover what you’re hiding from them. Beyond that, though, the marketing team at Universal clearly realized that there was only one thing they had to reveal to get people excited for Nope—the three words that drop down into frame like a UFO around the 50-second mark: “From Jordan Peele.”

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Just three movies into his directing career and a mere five years since moving from one side of the camera to the other, Peele has become the rarest of Hollywood anomalies: a filmmaker whose byline alone puts asses in seats. The Nope trailer—and in fact the entire marketing campaign for the movie, including the first poster, an intriguingly cryptic tease in its own right—is built around the assumption that audiences will not only recognize Peele’s name but be instantly enticed by it. His credit in big white letters is an invitation to step once more into the mind behind Get Out and Us—though, in a true testament to Peele’s fame, neither of those movies is even mentioned in the trailer. “From Jordan Peele” is enough.

There are plenty of directors who qualify as household names, recognizable to the average moviegoer. But in contemporary Hollywood, how many of them are treated like the actual draw of a project, more crucial to its appeal than the stars, the IP, or the premise? Even Steven Spielberg, probably the most famous filmmaker alive, isn’t assumed to be an attendance magnet. (And for good reason, apparently; his involvement wasn’t enough to make West Side Story a smash.) Peele, on the other hand, has become his own brand to the point where the details of each new movie are almost irrelevant from a marketing standpoint. What they’re selling is him. And so far, audiences are buying.

In an industry devoted to sequels, reboots, and the exploitation of old intellectual property, Peele has put a couple of genuinely original visions on the box-office charts. Get Out, an indie-budgeted horror allegory with no major movie stars (though, of course, Daniel Kaluuya has since become one), rose to the level of phenomenon without baiting the audience with the scent of the familiar. The whole hook of the movie was that it was something different: a thriller that dared to confront the insidious shape-shifting of white supremacy, to tap right into a culture reckoning loudly with the lie of a post-racial America.

Still, in Hollywood, there’s nothing so fresh that it can’t be turned into a lucrative trend. Setting aside the number of “elevated” thrillers that have stylistically leaned on Get Out‘s example, Peele’s subsequent work has provided identifiable hallmarks for distributors to highlight and exploit: a creeping sense of impending doom; the unsettling use of an old FM-radio hit; the occasionally comedic zing of the dialogue, serving as a reminder of the writer-director’s roots in a different genre. Though it didn’t touch the zeitgeist quite as forcefully as its predecessor, Us solidified Peele as his own genre, and maybe a franchise unto himself. It confirmed that people would go to his films in droves for the same reason they go to sequels: the promise of a certain kind of experience, which in his case is first-rate scares filtered through a keen wit and social conscience.

It’s a short list of contemporary filmmakers who can command or expect that kind of appointment viewership, regardless of exactly what their latest project is about. Peele’s almost rock-star reputation brings to mind Quentin Tarantino, another Best Original Screenplay winner with a movie-addled mind and a talent for needle drops. But the success of Tarantino’s work hinges partially on the stars he secures. Would Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood have made as much as it did without Leo and Brad on the poster?

A closer correlative to Peele’s box-office draw might be the general dependability of Christopher Nolan’s high-concept blockbusters. Like Peele, he’s the true star of his movies—a visionary who can drum up anticipation (and advance ticket sales) just by announcing his next project. Inception, Interstellarand Dunkirk—which, like Get Out, lost the Oscar for Best Picture in 2018—made big money on the expectations Nolan’s name alone provoked. Of course, you could call those movies franchise-adjacent; they echo Nolan’s time in Gotham, capitalizing on the seismic success of The Dark Knight.

If there’s one filmmaker whose career Peele’s most mirrors, it’s the one who broke out with his own sleeper horror hit, riding word-of-mouth excitement to huge box office and multiple Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Doesn’t Peele’s emergence as a purveyor of idea-forward, must-see Hollywood thrillers recall the two decades of hits scored by M. Night Shyamalan?

Think about it. Shyamalan, like Peele, followed his zeitgeist smash, The Sixth Sensewith a u-titled thriller that wasn’t quite as well received as its predecessor. He then made an alien-invasion movie set in rural America … which is exactly what Peele seems to have done with Nope. Both men have moved into producing for the big and small screens, and both have made ill-fated bids to revive the popular anthology series—Peele with his less-than-rapturously received Twilight Zone rebootShyamalan with a Tales From the Crypt update that never got off the ground. The two have even shared a cinematographer in Mike Gioulakis.

If the similarities between these idiosyncratic filmmakers are superficial, both have comparably scored hits from (mostly) original stories at a time when studio executives and audiences have gravitated toward reruns. What really links the two is not a sensibility—they’re very different directors with very different voices—but an affinity for the place where horror, science fiction, and intersect drama. You could call that place, well, the Twilight Zone. But while Shyamalan seems to have largely drawn on Rod Serling’s weakness for surprise endings, Peele has latched on to that creator’s iconic use of fantastical conceits as a route to social critique.

And it’s that aspect of the latter’s work that may be the biggest key to his transformation from sketch-comedy funnyman into one of Hollywood’s most bankable auteurs. Get Out and the class-minded doppelgänger thriller Us established Peele as more than just a budding master of horror and an expert craftsman. They positioned him as a keen cultural commentator, someone interested in holding court on the anxieties behind the headlines and raising a funhouse mirror up to our culture-war age. Watching his films, you get the impression he’s trying to make sense of the here and now. That topical urgency has made the movies unmissable events—even when, in the case of both Us and the new Nopeit’s not entirely clear from the outside what larger topic they’re actually tackling.

Like Shyamalan, Peele has gotten audiences hooked on the distinctive shape of his own imagination. He’s turned his perspective on the world into a gravitational force. And maybe, in his success, one can see a heartening appetite for something more than the franchise fare that studios are otherwise churning out. In an era of endlessly retold stories, there exists an underserved market for exciting new ones. Making his name synonymous with those is Peele’s great victory—one absolutely worth celebrating.

AA Dowd is a writer and editor based in Chicago. His work has appeared in such publications as The AV Club, Vultureand Rolling Stone. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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