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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

* *

Director: Tom Ford
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon

I was a great admirer of Tom Ford's debut film, A Single Man, which was not only incredibly stylish but also managed to be a moving portrait of a man struggling to grieve a loss that the mores of the time keep him from openly acknowledging. I'm considerably less keen on Nocturnal Animals, which is also stylish and even, in moments, expertly made, but overall reeks of fraud. Nocturnal Animals is a movie that doesn't actually seem to have anything to say, save for the most superficial and banal things possible, but revels in empty symbols that give the appearance of profundity. It's unfortunate, because the film actually contains some pretty incredible performances (including that of Michael Shannon, which received an Oscar nomination), but even the fine work of the actors can't disguise how vapid an enterprise this is.

Adapted from the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, Nocturnal Animals divides itself between two stories. The first involves Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner unhappily married to her second husband (Armie Hammer), her professional success and it's trappings little more than an empty shell masking the fact that the gallery is losing money. She unexpectedly receives a manuscript from her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) and is profoundly affected by it as it reminds her of their past and the deterioration of their marriage. The second story is the content of Edward's novel, in which a man named Tony (Gyllenhaal) takes a road trip with his wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber), running afoul of a trio of low-lives who kidnap, rape, and murder the women. Afterwards Tony is tormented by his inability to protect his wife and daughter and he's devastated when the leader of the trio (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) evades charges. But Tony gets a second chance to prove his mettle when the detective in charge of the case (Michael Shannon), who is dying of lung cancer, suggests that they engage in a bit of vigilante justice in order to effect justice.

There is a sequence in Nocturnal Animals that I would qualify as one of the best in film from 2016. This occurs when Tony and his family encounter their tormentors on the road, getting run off the road and then having to negotiate the interaction that follows in which the three men menace them while making it appear that they're assisting them with a flat tire. Using social niceties and common sense as weapons of manipulation, the attackers get the family to leave the car of their own accord, becoming more aggressive every time they point out just how nice and helpful they're being. It's an incredibly tense sequence and Ford is masterful in the way that he unfolds it, allowing it to turn on the way that Tony becomes completely disarmed by words and cues that would be innocuous in a normal interaction, but which drip with escalating contempt and danger here. The words are right, but the atmosphere is all wrong, and Tony just isn't able to reconcile his instincts and the way that he's been socialized. It's a truly wonderful, genuinely scary sequence and all of the actors involved (Taylor-Johnson, in particular) are superb in it.

The "fiction" portions of the film are, generally speaking, fairly strong. It helps that this is the portion that boasts Shannon, whose grizzled detective literally has no fucks left to give and manages to match Taylor-Johnson for menace, albeit of a slightly different sort, one that's more controlled but no less effective. It's the "reality" portions of the film that drag it down, draining it of the dramatic tension created by the story-in-the-story. As much as I like Amy Adams (and this isn't at all a criticism of her performance, which is fine), the scenes that center on her character lack an actual and compelling narrative arc (unless you find "rich lady reads a book, has regrets, gets stood up in a restaurant" compelling) and Ford opts to fill all that vacant space where a story ought to be with pretension.

Ford's intention may be to say something deep and meaningful about art and artists, but the terms in which he's saying it are tedious and built on a strategy that's designed to undercut the complexity of Susan and Edward by presenting the former as idealized to the point of spotlessness. Edward is an artist who has spent 20 years honing and perfecting his craft, willing to sacrifice the comforts of wealth by turning away from the pursuit of money so that he can do what he loves. Susan is not an artist herself (though in flashback Edward argues that she could be creative if she cared to be) and in her role as gallery owner she's a conduit through which art can be commercialized. She doesn't even really like the art she displays; she's in it for the money. Edward's passion is "pure" and in order to underscore that purity, Ford makes the work that Susan displays as lurid as possible and her connection to it nebulous (at one point she pauses in front of a painting and asks about it, having to be reminded that it's something she once championed and bought). Moreover, Edward's art is a metaphorical expression of his pain at the breakdown of the marriage, in which the fact that Susan had an abortion and left him for another man is reimgained as his wife and child being kidnapped and murdered and him being helpless to stop it. The scales are so unbalanced between Edward and Susan - he's so blameless, she's so blameworthy; he's the victim, she's the perpetrator - that it becomes increasingly difficult to invest in either of them. By the time Susan is left waiting in that restaurant, I found it pretty hard to care. Nocturnal Animals is a film with some strong individual parts, but its weaknesses bring the project to its knees.

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