NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016, Tom Ford)
When A SINGLE MAN burst onto the scene in 2009, its critics dismissed it with slams such as “looks like a perfume commercial.” I never really understood those complaints. Well, okay – I understood them, but they were short-sighted and seemed to be easy, pre-conditioned refusals to embrace a profound, substantial motion picture. Critics saw a guy who makes handbags for a living sitting in the director’s chair, and waved off his filmmaking skills as if his effort was just another product to be sold at Crystals in Vegas.
Sure, it looked beautiful and had impeccably-dressed actors looking great amidst sparkling production design. But the composition of every shot and the aching existentialism of the story were proof that a real artist was at work here, and the “perfume commercial” diss implied a superficiality that could only be assessed with willful disregard for the content of the film. I don’t know what the reaction to NOCTURNAL ANIMALS has been, but because it’s grittier, more violent, and has more of a plot, it seems like it would be even harder to write off as a flashy style-over-substance curiosity. But who knows; maybe that’s the charge. If it is, I’d ask those critics what’s so bad about a movie that looks that good? Perfume commercials aren’t ugly to look at, so the real objection you’re making is that there’s nothing underneath. Any sincere investigation into the meat of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS will turn up plenty underneath, and in fact it’s one of the most intellectually engaging films I’ve seen in months.
First, there’s a very clever story within a story embedded in the film’s narrative, which brings to the forefront a meditation on art itself. When Susan begins reading Edward’s novel, Ford plunges us into the book, shooting it like a hot-blooded noir. But this is Susan directing the film in her head, so the images we see in the book-within-the-film are actually created by one of the characters, not just by Ford himself. So they’re clues — clues to Susan’s fears, regrets, and visual language. This is key: Ford is developing character through imagery, not actions or dialogue.
So what is he saying? First of all, we learn through flashbacks (shot entirely differently; a warmer glow, smoother editing, and with softer acting) that nothing in the book is autobiographical. And we know Susan told Edward not to write about himself — but she pictures Edward in the lead role, and pictures a woman much like herself in the role of the guy’s wife (that she’s played by Adams’s doppelgänger Isla Fisher is a shrewd in-joke). So what are we to make of the revenge plot? Is the book Edward’s revenge? Is the fate of the family a fantasy? It’s hard to know when Ford only puts us in Susan’s head, but as the present-day actions play out, it starts to become clear that if anything the novel presents an opportunity, not a threat. Susan may realize what she’s lost, but she’s no longer wearing a mask.
Speaking of masks, the ways in which we present ourselves vs. the way we really are is a central theme throughout. In one present-day scene, Susan delivers a thinly-veiled attack on a colleague’s plastic surgery, having discovered the emptiness of the falseness we construct. This puts into context the opening sequence, a bizarre slo-mo parade of obese naked women holding symbols like flags and pom-poms. It’s presented without context at first, allowing the audience to question our own reactions to these images — are they grotesque? Beautiful? Crass? Liberating? Only when it’s done do we find out that this is the art Susan is trafficking in — this is the art she displays in her gallery, the statement she makes. The very idea of beauty or lack thereof is central to Susan’s spirit, though it’s something she might come to change after undergoing the existential crisis both Edward’s book and her husband’s behavior put her through.
Performances are electrifying across the board. Gyllenhaal plays two characters, and fills them out so realistically that we never even once question whether we’re watching Tony or Edward within half a second of a new scene beginning. Adams expertly paints the arc from her optimistic, loving younger version with Edward to Susan’s cold, broken older self — the uncomfortable deadening of a woman who gave up what she needed in favor of something she thought she wanted. Whether that happened because of a genetic predisposition to be like her mother (Laura Linney, absolutely slaying it in her one terrific scene) or through a culture that favored surface glamor over true connection, it’s communicated wonderfully through Adams’s “sad eyes” and the crisp, delicate 35mm photography by Seamus McGarvey. Then there’s Michael Shannon as a dying cop, a character that could easily just be a crutch for a cheap book-within-a-movie, but there’s so much life behind his physicality and dialogue, life both lived and wasted, that the guy is a marvelously tragic figure stuck in the purgatory of West Texas.
Anyone who’s driven through West Texas knows just how barren it is — how crushing the realization is that you have hours left to go to get out, and you’ve already been there for hours. And it’s so flat — it’s like the end of an earth that gave up. What a great setting, then, for the philosophical meditation Edward writes (and Ford presents): this is where we face our fears and regrets, and revenge — whether served hot or cold — is a futile, merciless enterprise.