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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From AMPAS president John Bailey:

Dear Fellow Academy Members,

Danish director Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is not only one of the visual landmarks of the silent era, but is a deeply disturbing portrait of a young woman’s persecution in the face of the male judges and priests of the ruling order. The actress Maria Falconetti gave one of the most profoundly affecting performances in the history of cinema as the Maid of Orleans.

Since the decision of the Academy’s Board of Governors on Saturday October 14 to expel producer Harvey Weinstein from its membership, I have been haunted not only by the recurring image of Falconetti and the sad arc of her career (dying in Argentina in 1946, reputedly from a crash diet) but of Joan’s refusal to submit to an auto de fe recantation of her beliefs.

Recent public testimonies by some of filmdom’s most recognized women regarding sexual intimidation, predation, and physical force is, clearly, a turning point in the film industry—and hopefully in our country, where what happens in the world of movies becomes a marker of societal Zeitgeist. Their decision to stand up against a powerful, abusive male not only parallels the cinema courage of Falconetti’s Joan but gives all women courage to speak up.

After Saturday’s Board of Governors meeting, the Academy issued a passionately worded statement, expressing not only our concern about harassment in the film industry, but our intention to be a strong voice in changing the culture of sexual exploitation in the movie business, already common well before the founding of the Academy 90 years ago. It is up to all of us Academy members to more clearly define for ourselves the parameters of proper conduct, of sexual equality, and respect for our fellow artists throughout our industry. The Academy cannot, and will not, be an inquisitorial court, but we can be part of a larger initiative to define standards of behavior, and to support the vulnerable women and men who may be at personal and career risk because of violations of ethical standards by their peers.

Yours,
John

.“People that are liars — lying to his wife, to his children, to everyone — well, they have to turn around and say, ‘Who stabbed me?’ It’s unbelievable that even to this moment he is more concerned with who sold him out. I don’t hear concern or contrition for the victims. And I want them to hear that.”
~ Bob Weinstein