As befits a movie so big that it scares nearly all comers, you want to watch “No” on the biggest screen possible, and with the best, biggest sound system. Set on a remote ranch in the picturesque desert town of Agua Dulce, California, the film focuses on siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood (Kaluuya and Palmer), Hollywood horse trainers who experience an unprecedented visit. No is handcrafted for the kind of presentation you can only get in a real theater – preferably Imacs, to take full advantage of the film’s stunning production design and intimidating sound mix, which ranges from thunderous and shaky roars. To that kind of silence which is not so much a stillness as an acoustic emptiness: the kind of silence in which you hear only the beat of your heart. Kudos to sound designer Jonny Byrne (BAFTA nominee for The Favourite), who deserves to be number one on the Oscars list next year.
Before settling into its worrisome groove, La must dispense with some routine drama involving the Haywoods’ bankruptcy in horse arguments – who makes Westerns anymore? – and the mysterious death of their father (Keith David) six months before the start of the main business. We learn that OJ is kind of a laconic cowboy. Emerald is a talker, and often funny. There’s also a subplot involving a former child actor (Stephen Yun) from a ’90s sitcom starring a chimpanzee who goes berserk (in a suitably horrific and gory way), but this novel doesn’t go anywhere. Now the owner of a Wild West-style tourist attraction in the desert, Yeun’s character feels crammed into a tight story that she’s probably better off without him. (Or, alternatively, it deserves its own spin-off.)
Things pick up when OJ and Emerald decide they need to document some unexplained weather phenomena (UAPs) they’ve recently started encountering around their farm: a cloud that never moves and a dark, saucer-like object they can glimpse through. Photovoltaic hills. Not just documentation, but potentially monetization, by taking the shots they called “Opera Shot”: a high-quality, unquestionable photo for which someone will pay. When it turns out they’re dealing with something weirder and more deadly than they originally thought, their plan evolves from making a quick buck to saving Earth.
In that sense, at least, “no” feels like a throwback, and in a good way. It’s an old-school creature feature, filled with a creature that causes blackouts, but defies the stereotype of the little green man. And it gets a big boost in contemporary juice from the fact that it’s located in the country of the film industry. When OJ and Emerald realize they can’t handle the puzzle on their own, they team up with a 20-something surveillance systems specialist from an electronics chain (Brandon Perea) and a grizzly guerrilla photographer with a hand-wrapped film camera (Michael Wincott).
It’s a nod to the past, present, and future of filmmaking, all at once.
The acting here is very good, particularly by Kaluuya, who exudes the strong, muted air of modern Gary Cooper, all of whom ignore and overlook the monosyllables, and Palmer, who is the more expressive chip. But “no” ultimately belongs to its director, and not to its representatives. Whether we’re watching some CGI-heavy in the sky or flashback scenes featuring raging primates (played by Terry Notary in a superb action-capture performance) or simply Kaluuya on horseback — a new kind of Western hero wearing an orange hoodie — Peele tells his story visually, not verbally. One particularly remarkable sequence features OJ and Emerald setting up a warning system for colorful, inflatable dancing men — the kind you sometimes see outside auto dealerships — around the perimeter of their property. She’s the perfect Peele: unforgetably surreal, frightening and a bit silly.
The dialogue isn’t overly important but features the title word prominently, which OJ and Emerald speak in response to what they see. You may find yourself saying “no” too, once or twice, in a way that really amounts to saying “yes” to the jerk pleasures of “no,” which feel old and new.
R was found. in the theaters of the region. It contains vulgar language all around, and some violent and bloody imagery. 131 min.