I have returned, my lovelies.
I hope this blog post finds you well.
After enjoying Arrival last week, I thought I’d do a double-bill on Amy Adams and so I sallied forth to yond picture house and soon my eyes were gazing upon…
Nocturnal Animals is the second film from hobbyist Tom Ford – a renowned fashion designer whose previous film, the 2009 drama A Single Man, scored several Academy Award nominations and re-established Colin Firth as a dramatic leading man as opposed to a Bridget Jones appendage.
He makes incredibly good looking films about strangely detached people sitting in absolutely beautiful, completely un-lived-in rooms.
Such is the case with Nocturnal Animals – so let’s get dissecting!
The film focuses on Susan (played by Amy Adams), who lives in a palatial, spiky, black and chrome house in LA where she works as an art gallery owner, or possibly gallery Artist-In-Residence, or something. It’s never really made clear exactly where she sits on the creative spectrum, which is fine. But I would like to know just how responsible she is for the “installation” that film opens with.
It features several morbidly obese women completely naked doing a little shimmy with miniature American flags.
Yeah, no, you read that right.
I have no idea how I feel about this opening sequence – I imagine it is meant to be a satire, or subversion, of the usual James Bond dancing girl opening . But if it is, it still feels nastily exploitative, as if fat people are inherently a counter-argument. I don’t know if it was meant to be blackly funny, or unsettling, or just perplexing. It is a confused, muddled opening, and it is never referenced or worked back into the fabric of the film proper at any point. It seemingly has no point, apart from Tom Ford quietly whispering to himself – “I’m a clever artist“.
Upon sounding that out, I’ve decided that I hated the opening. It really put me off, and not in the way that the director probably intended.
Which is a shame, because the film then moves on to it’s story proper, and there are lots of good things.
Susan is in a loveless second marriage with the guy who stole Facebook from Jesse Eisenberg, and she attends a party with vacuous couple Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough, who turn up for ten second cameos that are alternately crushed velvet-wrapped (Sheen) and coked-out-of-her-mind-nonsense (Riseborough). Seriously, Andrea Riseborough’s wave goodbye to Adams, framed in front of a colossal painting, is such an inhuman and clearly blocked gesture that I nearly went into a coma – no human behaves like that. That is not how you direct human actors.
So Nocturnal Animals , it turns out, is the name of a book-within-the-film, written by Susan’s ex-husband Edward, who is played by Jake Gyllenhaal. He has sent her the proof of the book, and dedicated it to her. It’s an exciting development, and I was intrigued as to what their re-connection and/or confrontation might be like.
Except, the film doesn’t do that, at least not yet. Instead, the book plays out as a film-within-a-film, or character-visualising-a-book-within-a-film-and-she-projects-her-ex-husband-into-the-book-as-it’s-protagonist, which is a lot more complicated, really. So let’s go with the former.
Yes, truth be told dear readers, I found the book within the film much more interesting as a piece of film – it’s frequently tense, it’s very well directed, and it includes some excellent performances from the ensemble-within-the-head-of-Amy-Adams.
Gyllenhall does double-duty, playing both real-world Edward and his literary creation Tom, who sports an epic beard.
Book-Jake is driving through Hickstown, Texas with his daughter and his wife, played by Isla Fisher in what must represent the most awkward call an agent has ever had to make.
That does Isla Fisher a disservice, because she does excellent work in her limited screen time.
Anyow, Book-Jake et al. are intimidated by a trio of nasty backwater types led by the kid from Kick-Ass.
OK, well, shit.
Can we give him a creepy moustache and a wifebeater?
I’ve never liked Taylor-Johnson, but he is eminently credible here as a dangerous, intimidating lunatic, and he plays the ringleader of the rapists to the hilt. He’s great, basically.
Anyhow, they do nasty things to the Amy-Adams-stand-in-within-the-book-within-the-film, in a series of sequences that are brilliantly shot, edited, directed and played. This stretch of the film is really worth watching, except for the fact that…
Well… it doesn’t matter, does it?
Allow me to reveal a deep-seated pet peeve of mine – I generally hate things-within-things when it comes to this kinda stuff. The characters we meet within the film within Nocturnal Animals don’t even exist to the people in the film, and so I find it difficult to bridge the empathy gap as an audience member – it doesn’t really matter what happens to them, what matters is how they (positively or negatively) affect the characters we’re actually supposed to be watching, right?
Plus, it shouldn’t upstage the actual story itself, should it? If The Murder of Gonzago is infinitely better than the production of Hamlet around it, well then what the fuck are you watching Hamlet for?
Unfortunately, instead of matching Nocturnal Animals the book-within-a-film with it’s own tension or drama, Nocturnal Animals the film-about-a-book is content to to show an endless series of beautifully framed Vogue photo-shoots of Adams reading in big fuck-off clunky glasses while something much more interesting happens in her head.
Around these two interlocking (and sadly unbalanced) narratives, a third strand is wrapped about 1/3 of the way in – we are treated to flashbacks of the initial courtship of Susan and Edward 19 years prior to the events of the film, where a serious dollop of possibly CGI vaseline renders Gyllenhaal and Adams as purportedly mid-twenties students who must grapple with financial woes and the “life of the artist” and all the typical and well-trod woes and arguments and doubts that those two phrases bring to mind. It’s fairly rote stuff.
So, what about the good parts then? What are the saving graces of Nocturnal Animals?
Well, for one thing, the performances are strong across the board. Gyllenhaall plays his two roles incredibly well, and he has some very heavy lifting to do in the book sections (despite me not caring about what happens to the words on the page that he is playing) – he plays frustrated masculinity brilliantly, before progressing through grief, panic, acceptance, coldness, anger, and wrath with dizzying aptitude. In the “real-world” sections, he differentiates the author from his creation in many wonderful and subtle ways. He’s really brilliant in the film.
Adams, too, as we know after last week, can make even reading a book in silence spectacularly engaging. She is so very different in the flashbacks to her early years that I marvelled at how the simplest adjustment in bodily movement – the infinitesimally small leaning of her head, or tensing of her jaw, focusing of her eyes – suggest in different timelines Susan’s youth, hope, passion, doubt, self-hatred, apathy. It’s a masterclass in film acting, despite the fact she spends most of her screentime having ponderous showers and staring into the middle distance. Adams can do no wrong.
But there can be only one MVP in Nocturnal Animals – and it is he who, frankly, is worth the price of admission alone.
Michael Shannon plays Andes, the sheriff who helps Book-Jake-Gyllenhaal in dealing with them thar varmints, and he is an absolute joy to watch throughout – he is hilarious, heartbreaking, terrifying, mysterious, and unbearably vulnerable, sometimes within a span of seconds, and he does it effortlessly in every. single. scene. It’s almost unfair how good he is. It’s like he parachuted in from another film where characters feel emotions but don’t express them in soundbites or artsy-fartsy metaphors or long long LONG looks into a re-mortgage-your-house-expensive mirror, and just act like regular people.
He is so good in this film. I cannot overstate how good he is.
It’s just too bad he plays a fictional character who has no bearing on the story the film is supposed to be interested in.
Nocturnal Animals is , in short, a frustrating piece. There are so many good things about it, and yet I don’t know if I can really recommend it. At the end of the day, the book-within-the-film isn’t actually very good. Edward, it seems, is not a very good novelist. Judging by the opening credits, Susan is probably terrible at running an art gallery. Her work is morally confused and alienating for the sake of it, and his is merely hugely derivative.
I worry that it’s giving the film far too much credit to wonder if that’s the point. That the characters are unhappy because they’re bad at what they do. But why are we watching their work then? Why does the film revel in that work as if it’s good?
I’m fairly sure Nocturnal Animals wants me to view its naked ladies and McCarthy-lite as art. With a capital A.
But … it really doesn’t hit that level. It just thinks it does.
Even the most talented and committed actors (this film has many) can’t save a pretentious script.
They can only say it.
P.S. This week’s review was brought to you by the hypen.
THE HYPHEN – Connecting words and making world-play easier since 1854*
*Not the correct year, presumably. If it somehow is, please send me Reeses’ Peanut Butter Cups.