Daniel Kaluuya’s Divisive Performance In ‘Nope’ Is Actually A Masterclass In Stoicism

Everyone’s an expert in human behavior when watching an actor work. We all know how we would respond in a given situation. And when we see a false note, it can ruin a movie. That’s why it’s fascinating when a performance comes along that divides critics and audiences, like the one Daniel Kaluuya gives as OJ Haywood in Nope. To its champions, it’s a nuanced portrayal of grief, with Kaluuya revealing character through his inexpressiveness. To its detractors, it’s a vortex at the center of a frustrating film. In essence, how you feel about Kaluuya’s performance will determine how you feel about Nope.

It’s easy to see how the actor’s choices could pose a problem for some viewers. Nope was marketed as a summer blockbuster, and audiences are used to seeing winking, self-reflective star turns in popcorn movies. To fully appreciate Kaluuya’s performance, it’s important to understand the concept of “recessive acting,” a term coined in 2016 by Shonni Enelow in her remarkable essay The Great Recession. In the piece, Enelow looks at the stoicism of our current crop of young stars, including Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence, and Michael B. Jordan — not that she asked, but I’d also add Ryan Gosling — and sees a “resistance to and evasion of spectacular emotionality” that stands in stark contrast to the Method-inflected acting that has long been seen as the apex of the art. You’ll be hard-pressed to find Oscar-ready clips in their filmographies. Instead, you’ll see a bounty of quiet, reserved characters struggling to overcome systemic oppression or ongoing, multidimensional threats. These actors play up the endurance of their characters, not the emotional revelations.

Of course, acting styles inherently reflect human behavior offscreen. If a performance doesn’t register as believable to audiences, it won’t land. In her analysis, Enelow finds the real-world cause of this turn towards a more reserved emotionality in “the pervasiveness of photographic mediation in contemporary social life…as well as an anxiety about the prevalence of video surveillance and the way it might alter behavior.” She cites the performance of Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, in which Katniss Everdeen is motivated to withhold emotion as she simultaneously navigates a deadly environment while charming millions of viewers. It’s a similar predicament that befalls characters played by Kristen Stewart in Spencer or Ryan Gosling in First Man, whose extraordinary lives play out under an unforgiving spotlight. All three actors give thoroughly recessive performances.

Kaluuya, however, should be the new touchstone for discussions of recessive acting. He has built a career on characters who repress rather than reveal. In Get Out, Chris is summoned to hide his genuine reactions to the microaggressions (and then overt aggressions) of his girlfriend’s family when combined with Peele’s brilliant framing, Kaluuya lets the audience in just enough to deduce his inner experience. It was a performance defined by what he did not show. The same could be said for his Oscar-winning turn in Judas and the Black Messiah, in which Fred Hampton explodes with charismatic anger while speaking to his disciples, but his inner life remains mostly out of reach to viewers. Then there’s Widows, in which Kaluuya ventures deeper into the recesses of his humanity, playing a crime boss’s muscle with a haunting blankness. As he toys with a pair of petty thieves, forcing them to rap for his amusement, the terror comes not from his rage but from the absence of it.

DANIEL KALUUYA JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH RECESSIVE ACTING
Photo: ©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s only in Nope, however, that Kaluuya’s recessive style finds a perfect match with the material.  When Ennelow writes of the “pervasiveness of photographic mediation” she might as well have been predicting Nope’s exploration of the ways we view tragedy and spectacle. As soon as OJ and his sister (Keke Palmer), still reeling from the sudden death of their father, see a flying saucer above their horse ranch, they set about trying to capture it on film, which opens up a complex metaphor for the experiences of Black artists in Hollywood. It’s a film about marginalized people taking control of the tools that define their narrative. Surveillance video, film cameras, and smartphones all factor heavily into OJ’s endeavor, as Peele encourages viewers to critically consider the methods and impacts of our visual consumption. It’s a film more disquieting in its themes than its thrills, but it’s Kaluuya’s recessive performance that allows its ideas to spring free. Another actor might give in to temptation and charm the audience, but Kaluuya keeps us at a chilly distance.

It may be the smartest way to play a character steeped in trauma, especially in light of how his acting style reflects and reverberates through the culture. Enelow sees the trend of recessive acting as a reflection of how in the 21st century “trauma is less the exception than the rule,” citing the state of “continual crisis” created by our forever wars, an ongoing financial crisis, and, most importantly, “the ceaseless police and penal system violence against Americans of color.” In Nope and the rest of his filmography, Kaluuya employs recessive acting to reflect not just the broader challenges of society, but more specifically the emotional traumas of being Black in America. He paints a critical portrait of Black despondency, showing how microaggressions and outright violence from white America force his characters inward until they become nearly indecipherable to others, especially to white people. They don’t always make it obvious; not every film has a metaphor as perfect as “the sunken place” from Get Out. But it’s there in the intersection of performance and theme. Widows portrays a people and a place ravaged by gentrification; as muscle for a crime boss, Kaluuya shows us a soul that, much like his neighborhood, has been pushed aside for the development of others. In Judas and the Black Messiah, he plays a man destined by his own talents to become an icon, a savior of his own people, but Kaluuya’s eyes seem haunted by a tragic end that feels all but certain.

Those eyes have become Kaluuya’s trademark. For me, the lasting image of Nope is not Kaluuya running from an alien invader or galloping on horseback through the California desert. It’s OJ in his car, after having learned that avoiding eye contact with the sentient flying saucer makes it lose interest. Kaluuya looks forward, not up, showing his gaze to us and not to it. “Nope,” he says matter-of-factly, earning a chuckle in his refusal to open himself up to another terrifying reality. How apropos for a film that dissects our ways of seeing to hinge on an actor who shows us everything by showing us nothing.

Noah Gittell (@noahgittell) is a culture critic from Connecticut who loves alliteration. His work can be found at The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Ringer, Washington City Paper, LA Review of Books, and others.

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