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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“With any character, the way I think about it is, you have the role on the page, you have the vision of the director and you have your life experience… I thought it was one of the foundations of the role for John Wick. I love his grief. For the character and in life, it’s about the love of the person you’re grieving for, and any time you can keep company with that fire, it is warm. I absolutely relate to that, and I don’t think you ever work through it. Grief and loss, those are things that don’t ever go away. They stay with you.”
~ Keanu Reeves

“I was checking through stuff the other day for technical reasons. I came across The Duellists on Netflix and I was absolutely stunned to see that it was exquisitely graded. So, while I rarely look up my old stuff, I stopped to give it ten minutes. Bugger me, I was there for two hours. I was really fucking pleased with what it was and how the engine still worked within the equation and that engine was the insanity and stupidity of war. War between two men, in that case, who fight on thought they both eventually can’t remember the reason why. It was great, yeah. The great thing about these platforms now is that, one way or another, they’ll seek out and then put out the best possible form and the long form. Frequently, films get cut down because of that curse in which the studio felt or feels that they have to preview. And there’s nothing worse than a preview to diminish the original intent.Oh, yeah, how about every fucking time? And I’ve stewed about films later even more because when you tell the same joke 20 times the joke’s no longer funny. When you tell a bad joke once or twice? It’s fine. But come on, now. Here’s the key on the way I feel when I approach the movie: I try to keep myself as withdrawn from the project as possible once I’ve filmed it. And – this is all key on this – then getting a really excellent editor so I never have to sit in on editing. What happens if you sit in is you become stale and every passage or joke, metaphorically speaking, gets more and more tired. You start cutting it all back because of fatigue. So what you have to do is keep your distance and therefore, in a funny kind of way, you, as the director, should be the preview and that’s it.”
~ Sir Ridley Scott