NOCTURNAL ANIMALS B-
USA (117 mi) 2016 ‘Scope d: Tom Ford Official Facebook Page
Do you ever feel like your life has turned into something you never intended?
—Susan Morrow (Amy Adams)
A chillingly cold neo-noir film that is about 90% production values, and the rest relies upon some intriguing acting, but in Tom Ford films, a man whose success came first as a fashion designer, it’s the overall setting that matters, as that tells you what’s important. This is more of a slow descent into the murk from the director of A SINGLE MAN (2009), using cynicism as an excuse to tell a Macbethian ghost story that was clearly inspired by Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), where by the end, all that’s left is revenge. The overall mood of loveless detachment leaves little to the imagination, filled with white, wealthy, and entitled people who couldn’t be more unhappy, never looking into the mirror at the source of their own sterile emptiness, living in glass houses with extravagant views, leading fatalistic lives that are doomed from the start. Refusing to take a chance on Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), a poor yet aspiring young writer whose sensitivity attracts the attention of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) as a young woman, marrying him, but eventually leaving him as a lifestyle choice, as she prefers to be married in an economic status that provides her the special comforts of life. Now married to a philandering husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) who looks the part, cutting a dashing figure, but they are little more than eye candy to one another, someone they can be seen in public with and not be embarrassed. This special class privilege has its limitations, as there’s absolutely no spark of electricity between them, yet in the best tradition of a well-polished upbringing, they remain civil and polite, uttering meaningless phrases to one another, where he uses the pressures of work to constantly be away from home, but this is just an excuse to be with other women, as he’s apparently not so good at making money, though he looks the part, instead her lucrative art gallery supports them both, even though she’s lost any interest in any of the artworks she’s purchased, feeling no connection to any of it, calling it junk culture, where she is literally suffocating from the meaninglessness of being surrounded by “all junk,” yet she remains wracked by guilt at the way things ended with her first husband when she simply walked away. So it comes as a surprise when after a twenty year absence a manuscript arrives in the mail with his first book, entitled Nocturnal Animals, where curiously it's dedicated to her. At that point, the film divides in two, one a look at her life, complete with flashbacks mixed into the present, along with a second track that follows the violently sadistic story of the novel that seems to have personal implications. Ford effortlessly interchanges them, with each mirroring the other, yet despite this artistic device, the viewer can always separate truth from fiction.
Opening with one of the strangest opening scenes on record, naked, excessively obese women dancing on display at an art gallery, performance art images that are both provocative and disturbing, much of it in slow motion, surrounded by photographers and customers ogling them, where this is an uncomfortable glimpse into the vapid culture of contemporary modern art, forcing the audience to view the grotesque. This is the prelude for what follows, with Ford adapting Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, following upon a flashback theme from their early romance where Susan feels she is too cynical to be an artist, while she thinks Edward is overly naïve to be a writer, too insecure and weak, creating a culture gap that he was willing to explore further, thinking love is something you hold onto and don’t let go, but she ran out on him for a wealthier guy, a decision that still haunts her. The trashy pulp novel is shockingly violent, set in a world of pure evil and malice, with Gyllenhaal doubling as Tom, the self-loathing husband and father who is too meek to prevent a roadside hijacking where three men in another car drive him off the road, with psychopathic rednecks from West Texas seizing his wife and daughter for sick fun while leaving him helplessly abandoned in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in the vast emptiness of an unending desert, a superbly filmed sequence, easily the highlight of the film, where the intensity jolts her into a panic mode, as the material is emotionally devastating. The title comes from Susan’s habit of not sleeping, where she roams the empty premises of her luxurious home in the Hollywood Hills overlooking the flickering lights of Los Angeles at night, mostly alone, where she reads the novel over the course of several nights before Edward is due to arrive in LA. Her own husband is off in New York somewhere doing as he pleases, while she is running her gallery somewhat dazed and lost in thought, as this fictionalized world of the novel has a grip on her that is more viscerally real than her own ghostly, waking life existence. As if to embellish this virtual reality theme, where it’s easy to get lost in the concept of an alternate universe, Susan is greeted at work by one of her staffers, Sage Ross (Jena Malone), who is obsessed with watching her newborn baby all day long on her new cellphone app, where like Skype, she can communicate with her baby at any time, gleefully showing this device to Susan, where it’s the latest on modernized and mechanized motherhood, but Susan is caught in a surreal moment of her own, where one of the faces from the lurid novel she’s reading appears instead, causing her to drop and shatter the phone. Not to worry, as the latest iPhone version is coming out in just a day or two. Like a choreographed dance routine of misdirection, interweaving an intersection of technology, fiction, flashback, and reality where an appearance/reality theme prevails throughout the whole film, the director accentuates all the sleek and shiny surfaces, while revealing a ghoulishly ugly underside, themes also expressed in Terrence Malick’s incendiary view of Hollywood culture in Knight of Cups (2015).
Continuing with the novel’s lurid expression of wounded masculinity, Tony makes his way up the highway and finds an isolated farmhouse to call for help, where Detective Bobby Andes, a terrific Michael Shannon who’s hard as nails, arrives to investigate, quickly locating the abandoned naked bodies of his wife and daughter, shot gratuitously in a statuesque pose, each subjected to untold horrors leaving them both raped and murdered, leaving Tony wracked with guilt for failing to prevent it. Tony’s character is clearly a reflection of how she perceived Edward in the past, as she recalls the intimate details of their past romance, where her domineering mother, the almost unrecognizable Laura Linney, warns her that marrying Edward would be a big mistake, that “the things you love about [Edward] now are the things you’ll hate in a few years…” Ignoring her advice, almost as an act of childhood rebellion, she ultimately becomes exactly what she despised in her youth, where a phone call to her husband in New York reveals what she’s suspected all along, that he’s in the company of another woman. As she continues reading, a year goes by before Andes contacts Tony with two suspects, one dead and one alive as a result of a recent robbery gone wrong, with a third man getting away. Unable to identify the dead man, the one in custody was one of the three men on the road, immediately charged as an accomplice to murder. Finally tracking down the third man, Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who Tony also identifies, he is quickly released from custody due to insufficient evidence, setting up the final sequence, where Andes acknowledges he’s dying of lung cancer, maybe has a year left to live, but would like to get this over with before he dies, asking if Tony is willing to go outside the law and improvise. It’s the first opportunity to alter the power dynamic of this cat-and-mouse game, to turn it around, where up until now he’s been sadistically toyed with by these rednecks. Finally he has an opportunity to confront them face-to-face, where he has a chance to exact justice by his own hands, seething with anger and the opportunity to rectify this pervasive feeling of helplessness. Shocked by the dark content and raw emotion of the novel, Tony’s interior wrath reveals the anguish he’s felt since Susan walked out on him, where he’s making it plain to see in vividly graphic terms. Among other things, the film is about regret, having a chance to correct previous mistakes, something looming in the back of Susan’s mind, anticipating the opportunity to see Edward again. The way it plays out, on both ends, in the story and in real life, is unexpected, as things don’t go exactly as planned, where the director turns this into a kind of game or writer’s exercise where he has the last laugh, becoming a kind of parody of life, bordering on the insincere, exerting near imperious power to make sure Susan feels the same kind of dark hole of helplessness as Edward, both ensnared by the vacuous Hollywood allure where a gay artist (Michael Sheen) in a heterosexual marriage is heard to proclaim early in the film, “Our world is a lot less painful than the real world.”