The reason I rushed to get that last post published so quickly was that I had just watched the film, and wanted to get it all down while the images were still fresh. I’m probably going to mention things in this post that I forgot to mention in the last one or not mention some stuff I simply forgot. I’m still in something of a rush to write this all down before I forget my impressions of these characters, (I have seen the movie a second time since the first post). I didn’t walk into the movie thinking about things to look for. I walked into it remembering an interview I saw with Peele where he mentioned that his inspiration for this movie was Jaws.
There Are Going to Be Spoilers!!! There Are Going to Be Spoilers!!
To make a movie this ambitious (it is more than 2 hours long) and in an effort to save time, Peele has engaged in a certain amount of film shorthand, namely archetypal characters. Archetypes are typical examples of a certain type of person often seen in movies. Archetypes are characters that the audience is meant to immediately recognize (mostly on a subconscious level), understand who they are, what their purpose is, and sometimes a broad concept of what actions they’re going to commit. There’s nothing wrong with archetypes (unless they’re badly used or written), most films use them, and they’re meant to save storytelling time. Peele has used at least three different archetypes here, and they mostly seem to map very well to the archetypes from the movie Jaws, which is on Peele’s recommended watchlist as inspiration for this film.
The Cowboy – Oj
Drawing on his depth of knowledge of genre films Peele has engaged the archetype of The Cowboy in the form of OJ. While the definition of the cowboy is a guy who rides a horse to herd cattle, the image of the cowboy in the US is anyone who exhibits the behavior and trappings of a cowboy, which Oj does. He’s heroic, strong, silent, and highly principled, and has mastered the understanding, training, and use of horses. But what he most reminds me of with his jeans and hoodie are the urban Black horseriders called the Compton Cowboys which tickles me to no end!
When it comes to comparisons to Jaws, Oj is the one most like Sheriff Brody. He is the person trying the hardest to hold things down, hold onto his father’s legacy, and he is dedicated to his job and devoted to his family. Like Brody, he has trouble making his voice heard even when he is right, and is the kind of man willing to make the sacrifice play to defend what he loves.
The Prodigal – Emerald Haywood
Em is the classic Prodigal Son archetype. The Prodigal in movies (this definition is outside the literary version) is often a younger brother who has left home because they couldn’t reconcile themselves with the wishes of their father and seek a better life for themselves. Em comes back home from Hollywood after her estrangement from her father, and reconciling her issues with her dad (and brother) achieves her final goal. There is no Prodigal character in the original Jaws so the addition of Emerald is wholly unique. Another wholly unique feature is that this Prodigal is a Black woman who, while working in tandem with her brother, turns out to be the hero of the movie and a Classic Final Girl.
The Wild Card – Jupe
Another archetypal character is the wild card. Jupe isn’t a wild card because he’s unpredictable to us. Like Quint in Jaws, he is a wild card to the other characters who don’t know enough about him to figure out what his goal is. The wild card character has their own agenda and their own motivations. As long as they can accomplish their goal they will work with anyone, on any side, they will switch sides, betray others, or form alliances based entirely on what they can get out of the arrangement. They are often arrogant and opportunistic. This perfectly describes both Ricky (Jupe) Park and Quint. I consider Jupe a wild card because his goals are not consistent with the goals of the other characters, although, on the surface, they may seem to be and he is willing to seem as if he is their ally. But his primary goal is to exploit the UFO and the circumstances for his own monetary gain and his motivation is based on the mistaken belief that he can.
The Common Man/Man in the Chair – Angel
The closest Jaws character to Angel is probably Hooper, who is there to study the shark, handles all the tech and equipment, and has no stake in the affair other than being friends with the protagonist. I talked before about how every genre story needs to have one character who can speak for or represent the members of the audience. This character’s job is to voice the audience’s concerns or do the things that audience members wish they could do like having a grand adventure, being friends with the primary characters, or just surviving the event. These characters are unlikely to be killed, because they have no real stake in the proceedings, so they are more like witnesses. Angel, like Hooper, isn’t someone who really furthers the plot in a big way, but he is the character that is most like us, finding himself in an incredible situation that he must now deal with in a way we hope we would.
Ricky (Jupe) Park
Jupe is one of the deepest characters in the story and the one about whom we get the most in-depth backstory. Like the Mayor from Jaws, he is also the closest thing we get to a villain, or antagonist, as it is the choices he makes that set the plot in motion. One thing viewers may not have gotten is that the alien/ufo has taken up residence in the valley where the Haywood Ranch exists because Jupe has been feeding it the horses he’s been buying from Oj. Oj has been selling him horses as a way to pay for the Ranch’s upkeep, with the full expectation that he can buy them back. When Oj tries to discuss buying back his horses, Jupe distracts him with his famous backstory. Even though we can see the pain in his eyes and that he has not, in fact, moved on from the trauma, he tells Em the story anyway.
That scene is also an echo of Quint from Jaws in the scene where he is telling Em his story of what happened on the set of Gordy’s rampage and is a callback to Quint’s recitation of his own trauma aboard the USS Indianapolis, and something which informs his motivations for hunting the shark. You have these two characters who have not moved beyond their trauma, which has led to the delusional belief that they can control/capture these wild animals, which subsequently, gets them killed. Jupe’s scene doesn’t have the same level of gravity as Quint’s scene because it happens fairly early in the film before we’ve really spent much time with the character, but it serves the same purpose as a “pivotal moment” that each character has in their backstory. It is the moment that made them who they are in this one.
Jupe has the idea that because he survived Gordy’s rampage on the set as a child, and because Gordy, who was trained to give him a fist bump, was in the process of doing so before he was killed, that he has some special connection with animals. He has entered into a kind of devil’s bargain with the alien, where he feeds the creature horses every weekend, and as a result, the alien has taken up residence near his theme park, and specifically, near the Haywood ranch, where it steals the occasional horse and dumps its “spoor” on their land. Jupe’s mistaken belief that he has mastered this alien creature is one of the larger themes of the movie.
Jupe has not dealt properly with the trauma of what happened to him as a child. He continues to dwell in the headspace of that event, and coupled with his need to hold onto the fame of his youth, this makes for the disastrous outcome we see in the movie, where he presses his luck, and for his trouble, he and his audience get eaten.
If you look closely, you’ll see that each character holds onto some object from their past that is representative of their personal trauma. For Jupe its the little gray shoe which he keeps on display in his memorial room.
Emerald Haywood (Em)
The scene that most completely encapsulates the type of person Emerald Haywood is is the scene in the tech store where she’s laying out her plan to capture photos of the ufo to her brother, and she briefly interrupts her spiel to compliment some lady about her clothes. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but when I saw it I burst out laughing because that’s just so HER. She does things like that where she just randomly compliments people. Em is a person who is constantly giving and looking for approval, not just because it helps her accomplish her goal of being a Hollywood star, but because she seemed to always be trying to win her father’s approval.
Em’s “pivotal” backstory is when she was about nine years old her father promised to teach her to train her first horse, which she named Jean Jacket, but she never got the chance because her father chose Oj in her stead. She says after that their father never seemed to see her. He only had eyes for the heir to his legacy, Oj. Subsequently, she has spent the rest of her life trying to be seen, trying to gain somebody’s, anybody’s, attention. That’s what all the hustling and charming, self-referential patter is all about. She left home to go to Hollywood for fame and fortune and spends her time trying to convince other people she is special, not understanding that she was always looking in the wrong place because her brother already knew she was special (for being able to do the thing he could not do which was break free of his father’s shadow) and he has always been able to see her.
The one thing that Em holds close to her that exemplifies her trauma is her father’s speech which he used to introduce himself to his clients. In her attempt to be seen by her father she has memorized every word and inflection (even his stammer) of that speech.
There are a number of callbacks in the film, like the scene where she watches her brother being trained on her horse, Jean Jacket, and he looks up at her and points to his eyes, and then to her. This is recalled at the end of the movie when he does it again and she returns the gesture. One of the primary themes of this movie is seeing and being seen. Capturing the alien’s photogragh is her Jean Jacket moment. He is giving her this chance to put her shit down and show the world what he always knew she was capable of.
And for that, we anime fans are gifted the extreme pleasure of seeing her do The Akira Slide!!!
Otis Haywood Jr. (Oj)
Each of the primary characters has a pivotal story in their background that informs their character, motivation, and actions at the end of the movie. Oj’s pivotal story is that his father chose him to be his successor rather than Emerald who seemed to want it more. When they were kids, she was set to train a horse she named Jean Jacket and his father changed his mind and chose him for the training instead, which led to Oj being his legal heir. Subsequently, he got all the training (and hence his father’s attention) with Em’s horse. The first job he went to with his father was on the set of The Mummy spinoff movie, The Scorpion King 2, (which is where the orange hoodie comes from) but he was deprived of his chance to show his skills when the creators decided they didn’t need horses and would use camels instead, and has spent the years since then as his father’s assistant, never getting the chance to build the confidence that comes from working on his own.
The representative object that Oj holds close to him is the orange hoodie with the Scorpion King logo. It’s emblematic of the pivotal childhood event where he never got a chance to use his newly trained skills on his first job, and was relegated to being nothing more than his father’s assistant.
One of the reasons Oj is so reticent/standoffish on the set at the beginning of the film is that is actually his first job alone, after his father’s death. Before that, his father did all the talking and handling on the set including that little speech memorized by Em. Oj didn’t have to try to hold everything down or talk to anyone on set because Dad had everything under control. (Up until one’s parents are gone you always think you’re ready for whatever, and then when they’re gone, you have to actually find out if you are.) The orange hoodie represents him finally picking up the reins from his father, and the corralling of the alien (and the protection of his family and legacy by doing so) is really his first job.
Oj, because of his understanding and connection with animals, is the first to recognize not just that the ufo is actually a territorial predator that must be respected as the animal it is, but the significance of the actions he and Em are about to perform. It’s Em’s first training job too, only she will be corralling an alien predator. It is Oj who names the alien Jean Jacket as a tribute to that moment.
While we’re here, let’s talk about how Oj survives multiple attempts by the alien to consume him, something that Jupe doesn’t. Oj is a very different character from Jupe and his sister. He doesn’t seek fame or attention, and the special connection with animals that Jupe only thought he had, and Em wishes she had, is something that Oj actually possesses. Due to his training with animals, he is the first to discern what they are dealing with, and unlike Jupe, he never forgets that an animal is an animal, and no matter how much training that animal has, it has a mind of its own, and it can still be triggered into violence. Em may be jealous of his skills but she is willing to recognize his expertise, listen to him when he tells her about the alien, and follow his directions in dealing with it.
As for Oj’s demeanor, some of the primary markers of autism are avoiding eye contact with others, anxiety in social situations, finding it hard to make friends or being a loner, noticing small details that others don’t, and difficulty discussing feelings. Oj displays many of these traits which is why some audiences like to read him as being autistic, an idea I support because I happen to be autistic. The first time we see Oj at work he is almost painfully withdrawn. He refuses to make eye contact, looks nervous/disinterested about being in the presence of so many strangers, and shows a reluctance to speak or draw any attention to himself. When he feels pinched he calls for Em to do what she does, and we feel almost as uncomfortable as he seems to be. (I winced through that entire scene, and it’s my least favorite one, not because it’s badly written, but because it’s such a great depiction of social anxiety/being the center of attention.)
Em and Oj‘ Relationship
I really enjoyed this movie because yeah, I’m attracted to spectacle, and it has plenty of it, but it also has great characters and great relationships. Otis Jr and Emerald really resonated with me because their relationship isn’t all that different from me and my oldest little brother, and the personality dynamics aren’t too far off either, except I’m the one who left home and came back, and he’s the more garrulous one. I’m one of those people who say about twenty words a year, and only under duress!) I’m an artist and dreamer, he’s a talker and fixer-of-things who thinks his big sister is an absent-minded nerd who needs to be carefully looked after. This is not unlike how Oj thinks of his little sister as a dreamer who is smart, but flighty. He’s willing to listen to her ideas because he respects her intelligence, and because of the force of her personality, which is how I often have to convince my know-it-all little brother to do what I want.
If you watch the movie carefully you realize that the only person Oj physically engages with is his sister. It’s not that he doesn’t interact with other people but recall the scene where he and Em are celebrating a victory, and slapping hands. Oj acts that way with no one else in the movie. He is almost always monosyllabic and averts his eyes from everyone else, even Angel, who he only warms up to slowly. Palmer and Kaluuya have such great chemistry that you actually believe they’re brother and sister. They both have issues surrounding their father but don’t let that get in the way of their own relationship or ability to work together. Em listens to her brother and trusts his expertise, especially when it comes to what he’s been trained to do. Oj listens to what his sister has to say, and goes along with her plan, recognizing her drive and intelligence.
I like to refer to Angel as the Common Man, or Everyman because, like Hooper from Jaws, he is an outsider, and of all the characters he seems most relatable to the average person. Like us, he doesn’t live, work, or have loved ones in danger at the Ranch, nor does he have any real stake in the proceedings other than being friends with Em and Oj. His life will not be greatly upheaved, outside of his interior sense of self, after this is all over. He is not there to save the Haywwod’s ranch or make any money off the alien.
Angel gets a tiny bit of backstory and I like him for that. Angel operates like the sibling’s “man in the chair”. He helps set up their equipment and then spies on their attempt to capture images of the ufo. He tells the siblings that he just broke up with his girlfriend and is searching for something greater than himself, and even though he doesn’t say it, he’s also looking for friends, and somewhere to be other than by himself. He meets Em and Oj at the tech store where he works and is immediately intrigued by them. Seeing their presence in his store as a call to adventure, he invites himself into their lives, and them into his, offering to let them stay at his home after an incident that causes them to flee their own (and offering them his clothes). Angel is that childlike part of us that seeks thrills and adventure (and new friends) with no consideration of the actual danger.
I’m a sucker for the Found Family trope, so Angel immediately endeared himself to me by inserting himself, totally uninvited, into an event that has nothing to do with him, and then holding his own, as if he totally belonged there. He is a quick and clever thinker and one of the few people actively pursued by the alien that saves himself by simply making himself taste bad – rolling himself in barbed wire! (He makes himself unattractive to the camera!) Although Angel spends most of the movie frightened out of his skin, he does make reasonably intelligent decisions, the kind we’d like to think we would make in such a situation. He’s out of his depth and he knows it, but he never backs down, or runs out on them, and manages to keep his sense of humor. His loyalty to Em and Oj is baffling to some people, but having been an introvert on the receiving end of being unexpectedly adopted by an extrovert, I get it.
One thing tied to my last post is about the scene where the mantis obscures the view of one of Angel’s cameras, and how in Christian mythology a praying mantis in the home is a sign that angels are watching over you. Some audience members pointed out that there actually is an “Angel” watching over the house during that scene.
*Okay, now this one is also getting a bit too long, and I can see that this is going to require a part 3 because I haven’t really talked about the monster, its significance, its depiction, what it represents, and one other character people always forget about when talking about a film, the landscape!
**Yeah, I did go back and see the movie a second time. I had not planned to do so, but when the opportunity presented itself for my sister to pay for it I jumped at the chance. There is a certain amount of glee involved in watching a Horror movie, with your easily frightened and already nervous sibling, that you have already seen and lording it over them just a little bit. That’s just one of several perks of being a sibling!