Saturday, 19 November 2016

Review: Nocturnal Animals

Nocturnal Animals
Cert: 15 / 117 mins / Dir. Tom Ford / Trailer

Ah, a 'late-morning' screening. While the attending crowd was slightly more varied than the ones for Under The Skin and Knock Knock, there was still a strong contingent of Unaccompanied Middle Aged Man™ present. And during the lengthy, slow-motion opening sequence of Nocturnal Animals, I could sense many brows furrowing around the room and mouths falling agape, silently forming the look of "hang on, this is not the film that the trailer sold me…". There is a context for what happens at the beginning, but only in that the context is itself out of context. I won't spoil it, you'll see for yourself when you watch the film.
Confused? Welcome to Nocturnal Animals.

Tom Ford's adaptation of Austin Wright's novel, Tony and Susan, follows Amy Adams (Susan no less), as a fundamentally unhappy contemporary artist who receives a pre-publication manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward, after several years of non-contact. When it turns out that Edward's book is a violently clear allegory for his feelings about their failed marriage, Susan is appalled and enthralled in equal measure. The film splits into a visual adaptation of the work, Susan's reactions to it and a series of progressive flashbacks which reveal the ways their relationship broke down.

Nowhere near as challenging as it'd like to think it is, Nocturnal Animals is, nonetheless, very good at being difficult to like. Probably a little too good, actually. It's well acted and solidly directed, but I couldn't work out if the film has a terrible, clunky script, or a brilliant script of terrible, clunky characters. Maybe they're the same thing, even though they shouldn't be.

With Adams' as the emotionally reinforced artist, Armie Hammer as her second (and externally lecherous) husband, Jake Gyllenhaal as her flawed husband in the flashbacks and the flawed central character in Susan's interpretation of the book, and obstructive or negative supporting characters in all three timelines, I don't think it's unfair to say that there's not a single redeeming character in the whole film. That's not to say if has no redeeming features, but they're scattered loosely down a long, dark road.

The novel Susan receives depicts a man (Tony, from the title or the original book, above) driving through the southern states of America with his wife and daughter when they become ambushed by a gang of rednecks. One thing leads to another and the man is separated from his family while they're raped and murdered. The rest of the story follows Tony as he teams up with a borderline corrupt cop to bring the gang to violent justice. It's basically a 1970s exploitation flick with a framing device.

The bottom line is, for all the stark visuals, subtext and narrative layering, Nocturnal Animals slowly descends to a sort of art-student torture-porn, raising one eyebrow as it plays ironically in a sandpit it thinks it's too good for, all the while throwing in flashbacks and real-world segments which make decreasing amounts of sense*1. True to its title, the film embraces that sense of heightened-yet-detached unreality which is both the confidant and tormentor of the 3am insomniac. But that's no consolation.

With plenty of frowning and yelling but little genuine emotion on display, Tom Ford's film is a compelling artifice of drama. Which might actually be the point, admittedly…

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Under the Skin.
There. I said it.

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
It'll be more atmospheric on a big screen than a small one, yes.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Oh, I have no idea.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
No, but I will ask you to explain yourself in great detail.

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Nocturnal Animals features Isla Fisher, who starred in 2010's Burke and Hare alongside Simon 'Plutt' Pegg, Andy 'Snoke' Serkis, Tim 'Palpatine' Curry and Christopher 'Dooku' Lee...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Okay, this section is in highlight-to-read spoilers for people who've seen the film and hopefully understood it more than I have:

1) The scene with Susan's colleague and the mobile phone which shows a monitor-video of a baby in a crib before a screaming demon leaps into frame, causing Susan to scream herself and drop the phone: I was under the impression that it was one of those prank videos that occasionally does the rounds. Except that her colleague's reaction displays no recognition at all, never mind amusement, once the punchline has been delivered. Okay, her phone screen is now smashed, but you'd at least get a "well, that joke backfired" line in response. So the other alternative is that the video is a nightvision baby-monitor app, as described, and Susan is in such a bad place psychologically that she's hallucinated the demon's appearance causing her to drop the phone. Except that we get no further hallucinations of this nature to suggest a descent into madness. So what gives with that scene?

Oh, and 2, who's the late-teen girl that Susan phones on the Sunday morning, who calls her 'mom'? The story leads us to assume that she doesn't have any children, indeed the 'bad thing' Susan did was aborting Edward's child (the vengeful reason for the couple's daughter's death in the book) at the start of her relationship with Hutton. But in one scene, Susan tells her assistant that her ex-husband is from 'a couple of years ago', which would be nowhere near enough time for Susan and Hutton to have a daughter of this age (and would also explain why neither Adams or Gyllenhaal look that much younger in the flashbacks - certainly not twenty years younger). And apart from anything else, Hutton's presented as such a prize tool that there's no way their relationship could have limped along for eighteen years, child or otherwise. Was Susan impacted so much by the discovery of the bodies in the book that she hallucinated her own aborted daughter back to life? I only ask because the poor girl isn't mentioned before or after that. Bizarre.

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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