Nocturnal Animals (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Nocturnal Animals (2016)

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Susan is lonely.  Her husband, Hutton, is away on business and she is busying herself by getting ready for an art exhibition.  She receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward, containing a book he wrote dedicated to her.  Susan's world loses its stability as Edward's words bleed into her existence.  Tom Ford wrote the screenplay for and directs Nocturnal Animals, and stars Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

Almost everyone likes to be flattered, and what better way to flatter someone than by creating a work of art dedicated to them?  It's going to depend on the art.  Maybe the artist will end up writing a beautiful poem or paint a portrait.  The flip side is that they are just as likely to create a violent fantasy, for themselves or for the object of their affection, that exposes the terrifying reality of their feelings.  At best the recipient will get some awkward comedy out of it, like when my best friend received poems about how she was a "water buffalo", or it may break a relationship when the unfathomable depths of feeling becoming clear to the recipient.

Nocturnal Animals makes its intentions toward the shattering aspect of art immediately clear.  Large women, naked save pom poms and a hat, dance in glitter in front of a red curtain as director Tom Ford focuses on their bodies in slow motion.  I was stirred by the enthusiastic embrace these women had for their nakedness.  Then the scene shifts, we see the ecstatic women are digital replicas playing on televisions, and the real bodies are offered up on clean white slabs for patrons at an art showcase to pick apart with their eyes.

This introduction highlights the terrifying depths of disgust that can be exposed in art.  Joy, even if it's authentic, is a hollow recreation for bored rich voyeurs who can only deal with the naked reality of these women's bodies if they're served up on a slab.  I already felt the brutality of Ford's criticism of the vacuous upper crust because of the introduction.  What followed was a nightmare of emotional truth laid bare to Susan (Amy Adams), whose emotionally sheltered life is destroyed because of one novel written by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).

A masterclass of slowly building tension is the catalyst of Edward's novel.

It is going to be difficult to reorient yourself after the introduction and Ford accelerates on with no intention of slowing down enough for the audience to catch up.  Ford switches from the "real" world of Susan running the art gallery, to the horrific emotional reality of Edward's novel, and a third layer largely inferred as Susan works out her relationship to everyone around her because of Edward's book.  Sometimes the shifts are clearly communicated like switching from indoors to outdoors when Susan sits down to read the book for the first time.  The intersections grow less blatant, memories of Susan's abortion bleed into innocent images of babies sleeping while the villain of Edward's writing leaps into tiny digital frames.

The factor to keep in mind about the various horrors of Nocturnal Animals is Susan makes everything about herself.  She keeps just enough distance from the images in Edward's novel so she can comment on it intelligibly, and in a great bit of casting the not-Susan fictional stand-in Laura is played by Isla Fisher.  Adams and Fisher have been confused for one another in the past, and having Fisher play Adams' stand-in during the Edward novel scenes adds a metatextual layer of fun confusion when Susan's memories begin to drift into Laura's fictional experiences.

Adams' performance is tricky, because everything is about Susan, but Susan is as hollow as the patrons of her gallery.  Barely anything Adams says in Nocturnal Animals feels sincere and Ford plays that up in the dialogue.  Edward confesses Susan was his first crush when they have dinner together, and from the way Gyllenhaal slips into the "aw shucks" demeanor that characterized his earliest performances it's clear he's exposing himself.  Susan sees an opportunity to ease her ego and loneliness as her now-husband Hutton (a perfectly distant bourgeoisie Armie Hammer) can barely muster a defense when sleeping with another woman.  Listen to the way Adams parrots, "You were my first crush too."  She does it without emotion, sympathy, nostalgic recollection, and can barely muster her own smile to match Edward's.

Michael Shannon, one of the best actors in the world, tops himself by draining all meaning and emotion from revenge only to leave the cold satisfaction of retribution.

Susan's weakness is that she is not capable of steeling herself against the ego-shattering possibility of art because every criticism levied against her is correct.  She despises the poor even as she complains to Edward that her, "conservative, materialist, racist, religious, sexist, Republican, narcissistic," mother is nothing like her.  Edward's novel gets at the truth, as the poor truck drivers who torment Edward's fictional stand-in Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) are repulsive but also magnetically sexy.  The centerpiece of that attraction and repulsion is in a nearly ten-minute build of nightmarish tension as the leader Ray (a powerful Aaron Taylor-Johnson) aggressively leans into Tony's family as they're trapped in a car.

The well-off like to imagine the poor as folks who have tricked the system and live just fine.  It's hard not to listen to Ray chillingly manipulate his way through suspicion in his ramshackle home and think of the welfare queen myth.  Also telling is the way Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon - never more precise and chilling) is pictured in Susan's mind as the real hero.  But that heroism is only in Detective Bobby's willingness to kill the poor, and so consumed is he by this drive that there is nothing left of Detective Bobby but that desire for death.

This is tied together by Ford's oil dark visuals, Susan's features intruding in the dark of her own selfishness, while Abel Korzeniowski's score builds empathy only to derail into menace.  Nocturnal Animals is a tremendous accomplishment and is the venomous critique of the upper class Gone Girl made smirking motions toward.  There is nothing funny in the vacuous "good feeling" liberal who wants to do something but goes back to the sterile emptiness of self-satisfied art.  It's chilling being alone at night with the thought that someone out there taps into commanding darkness at the very thought of you.

Nocturnal Animals was not the follow-up to A Single Man I was expecting from Ford, but is every bit its equal.

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Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by Tom Ford.
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

Posted by Andrew

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