Fame eats. It is a monster. In fact, it is the ultimate monster in Nix, Jordan Peele’s third full-throttle feature, a sci-fi western about a mysterious UFO haunting the skies of a sleepy Southern California ranch town. But Nix is not your conventional Peele project. The persecution and the poison of fame are its cardinal fixations. It is a film that deals exclusively with the external, a film that is meant to challenge the image-centric culture that we all enjoy.
Where Peele’s films are typically about traveling into psychological and physical interiors and the subsequent struggle to escape, to shake off the demons of racism or the scourge of ostracism – think: The Sunken Place in Go out (2017), the dark rabbit hole from which Tethered emerged U.S (2019)—Nix is the reverse. Peele suggests that there may be some danger in looking. It’s a film that convincingly questions the very line between spectacle and horror, an enigma about the motivations for the sustained gaze and what we stand to lose from it. Where does one line end and the other begin?
IN Nix, Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) is after the “Oprah shot.” She comes from a long line of horse trainers — “the only black-owned horse trainers in Hollywood,” as it happens — who never got their due. During a concert early on, she describes the story of her great-great-great-grandfather: He was the jockey captured in the first ever moving image on camera, “The Horse in Motion,” by Eadweard Muybridge. But like other chapters of black history, his name was eventually erased, forgotten in time. Fortunately, Emerald, along with her brother OJ (Daniel Kaluuya, who plays the part with fascinating restraint), refuse to let us forget.
Since this is a Peele endeavor, the historical snub is used as clever subtext. “We have the first movie star ever. And it’s a black man we don’t know,” Peele said in one interview with GQ. “In many ways, the film was a response to the first film.” When an alien UFO starts devouring horses on their ranch, sheep the shot becomes paramount to everything else. With proof of alien life, Emerald and OJ won’t just go viral – the Haywood name will live on forever.
Agua Dulce is the setting for Peele’s tormented wonderland, a breezy desert community and a suburb of Los Angeles. Agua Dulce is also home to Jupiter’s Claim, the local cowboy-themed amusement park run by Ricky Park (Steven Yuen), a former children’s television star. Where Peele is light on the backgrounds and the granular tensions of the Haywood siblings – a truly missed opportunity to add more complexity to the film – he unravels Ricky’s past with the precision of a trauma surgeon, revealing just how deep the pain runs. Creepy flashbacks reveal Ricky’s defining moment of transformation: the day he survived a freak attack by fellow chimpanzee Gordy, who went berserk and crushed everyone on set. The incident has a profound effect on the young star; as holder of Juptier’s Claim, it has conditioned him to exploit horror as a form of showmanship, as genuine prime-time entertainment.
Within the nuances of Ricky’s story is one of the more wonderfully complicated interpretations of how celebrity is alchemized and recycled today. It’s a necessary, if brutal narrative, of course, given that Ricky is Peele’s true cipher for the film’s tentpole themes of fame and the horror of being seen.