By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Toronto Review: Nocturnal Animals

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Nocturnal Animals, the second feature from fashion designer-turned-director Tom Ford, opens with individual shots of four nude women, each in the rawest of slow motion, as they twirl and dance for the camera. The corpulent body types of these women are atypical for this style of burlesque, making their exposed skin and innumerable imperfections commentary for artist Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a woman depressed in her second marriage to Hutton Marrow (Armie Hammer).

Susan’s installation of video nudes — and as we see later, comparisons to Rubens are appropriate — is at once open, spectacular, and brutally average in the sense of “average American.” Ford does not provide the artistic statement of Susan’s work, but her video art invites abstractions towards both the film’s title and its themes of indiscriminate ferality.

We are all mammals, Ford reminds us; we consume, we want, we lust. Laws and social contracts are simply constructs, and these ideals are done away with entirely in “Nocturnal Animals,” the diegetic thriller novel by Susan’s ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Edward sends his manuscript to Susan to show that after years of failing, he has made it as a writer (although as Ford stages Susan’s narrative, perhaps Edward’s intentions are more threatening than simple reconnection).

As Susan fitfully reads Edward’s novel — tossing in bed, gasping and removing her glasses, unable to put the book down — Ford cuts between Susan’s socialite ennui to the meta-fictional untamed highways of dusty rural Texas, where Tony Hastings (also Jake Gyllenhaal) is attacked by hyena-like hillbillies and suffers a tragic (and random) night of supreme loss. Helping Tony find closure on these crimes is Michael Shannon, attaining supporting actor perfection in a cancerous cop with nothing to lose.

Edward’s novel is frightening and upsetting, and as it comprises much of the film, we are locked into a state of nail-biting intensity punctuated only by Michael Shannon’s hilarious deadpan comedy. Yet Susan’s day-to-day is just as darkly humorous: when the iPhone of her assistant (Jena Malone) breaks in front of a mural that reads “REVENGE,” she shrugs and quips: “The new one comes out next week, anyway.” (Lines like these make me wonder if financiers read Tom Ford’s incredible script and felt the same magnetism Susan perceives in Edward’s writing.)

Finally, what is it about Jake Gyllenhaal in low-light that is so cinematically compelling?

In Nightcrawler, with gaunt skin stretched back for an effect that aged him dramatically, Gyllenhaal showed us his understanding of crepuscular. Prior to that role, with Prisoners, the actor displayed his ability to play a more traditional hero — a leading protagonist far different from the boy who was Donnie Darko.

It’s clear that Gyllenhaal, with his diverse filmography and career trajectory, is committed to topping himself over and over again. In Nocturnal Animals, he displays a heady mix of pathetic brilliance and fragile madness, distilling essentially the titles (and emotional ranges) of his previous films into something profoundly exciting. The actor feels winningly resistant to quick sketches of his “type,” or in-character allegiances, or whether or not his character is, well, vulnerable. Is he even the rank of actor that dies in movies? It’s a joy to toy with that question while we watch him, often as his eyes bug out of his head, in Tom Ford’s astounding thriller.

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“A shot is a story. A shot on its own should be a piece of a story. Which is why I talk a lot about watching films, even the films we’re working on, with the sound off. Just to analyze how the film works, because a film should work for an audience without any sound. The biggest problem I see is that someone may have a superficial understanding of what a shot is propositionally, but they don’t have an understanding of how all of these shots are part of a family that needs to connect, and so you’ll get something that’s like a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row. That surprises me, because I think that’s something that can be learned. Some things can’t be, but that can. It’s a grammar. In a classroom I could walk somebody through the difference between a sequence in which the filmmaker has a deep understanding of how images connect, and someone who doesn’t. It’s not really an intellectual process. Some people are just born with it and are just sort of savants at that deep mathematical understanding of shot construction.  I’m better than I used to be, but there are some people I’m just never going to catch. Spielberg. His staging ability. I’m never going to catch him. But when you’re trying to figure out how to get better—I’m not competitive in the sense of looking around at other filmmakers and comparing myself to them. What I do have to think about in trying to navigate myself through a career is: what can I get better at, and what do I have that I can enhance that somebody else doesn’t have?”
~ Steven Soderbergh

“It’s not going to be huge. He and I had been corresponding for a while. When I finally met him, he said, ‘We should collaborate.’ When John Ashbery says that to you, you don’t say when, you just say yes. It has not been easy to conjure this out of nothing. Sean Price Williams and I spent time with him, and it will appear on FilmStruck before the year is out…. I have figured out how to streamline things. I still have dreams of making movies with bigger budgets, and they might be considered to have more of a voice in pop culture. I don’t want to let go of that. I also realize that you grow up a lot of your life with wishful thinking and waiting. I have figured out ways to avoid doing that. I am working on a bigger movie about Nikola Tesla, set in the past, so it is not an easy film to make. I am also working on an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s ‘White Noise.’ That seems more likely to catch fire.”
Michael Almereyda Steps It Up