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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“The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes. It’s the destruction of our business. I have such respect and admiration for film criticism. When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline’s Kael’s reviews, or some others, and that doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives. Now it’s about, ‘What’s your Rotten Tomatoes score?’ And that’s sad, because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low on Batman v Superman I think it put a cloud over a movie that was incredibly successful. People don’t realize what goes into making a movie like that. It’s mind-blowing. It’s just insane, it’s hurting the business, it’s getting people to not see a movie. In Middle America it’s, ‘Oh, it’s a low Rotten Tomatoes score so I’m not going to go see it because it must suck.’ But that number is an aggregate and one that nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it’s not always correct. I’ve seen some great movies with really abysmal Rotten Tomatoes scores. What’s sad is film criticism has disappeared. It’s really sad.”
~ Brett Ratner Has A Sad

“The loss of a local newspaper critic is a real loss. People who know the local audience and know the local cultural scene are very important resources. You can’t just substitute the stuff that comes in from nowhere through syndication or the wire. I think at the same time, some of the newer outlets have really beefed up and improved their coverage and made room for criticism. The real problem is in the more specialized art forms — fine arts, classical music, dance and jazz, say. There is a real slowing of critical voices, partly because those art forms have smaller audiences. Newspapers and magazines can say that doesn’t get enough traffic, so we don’t have room for that. To me, that’s especially worrisome. This is the opposite of what newspapers are supposed to do, which is not to try to figure out what people are already interested in and recite that back to them, but to hopefully guide them to something that they should be interested in, connecting potential audiences with more interesting work.

“Then again, not everyone needs a critic. People have been going to movies for more than 100 years now, and probably the vast majority of those people have not read movie reviews or cared what critics thought. But there has always been an important subset that wants to know more, that wants to think about what they’ve seen and what they’re going to see, and wants someone to think along with. I think critics are important, not just as dispensers of consumer advice — though that’s certainly part of it, too — but as trusted voices and companions for people to argue with in your head when you’re going to movies or afterwards.”
~ A. O. Scott