Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Director: Tom Ford

****

What a strange beast Nocturnal Animals is.

Like so many creatures that emerge in the darkness, it’s at once alluring and repulsive, and thoroughly unpredictable. That’s entirely the point, of course; to follow his stylish and moving debut A Single Man, fashion designer-turned-writer/director Tom Ford has made a film of contradictions, where truth and artifice constantly switch roles. In adapting Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Ford has produced something lurid and provocative, but still with that pronounced style that defined his first film. The style’s a lure, though. This is a film that’s twisted in both content and form. There are narratives within narratives, whose brightly-lit worlds are deceptive and whose strangest sights bring their own kind of beauty.

The opening credits are a good example of Ford’s methodology here. The credits are backgrounded by a series of obese women dancing naked. The women are set against a velvety red wall that envelops the screen in warmth, thanks to the efforts of DoP Seamus McGarvey. Thanks to the oft-garish colours and another sumptuous string-led score from Abel Korzeniowski, beauty can be found even in so unorthodox a sight. The dancing women are part of an exhibit being put together by gallery owner Susan Morrow. The role of Morrow sees Amy Adams exchange her natural charm for excess make-up, horn-rimmed glasses and a cold demeanour, as Morrow’s dissatisfied with her pristine L.A. life.

Susan’s pretty house, prettier boyfriend (Armie Hammer) and obvious wealth cannot dispel her angsty fog. Indeed, this fog seems to cover the Los Angeles of Nocturnal Animals. An early aerial shot of the city at night shines a bright light on its skyscrapers, leaving the streets in the dark, like an eerie alien landscape. For all the colours McGarvey can bring to the city, it’s intentionally cold to the touch. All is artifice in Ford’s vision of L.A., from every overly made-up face to the jangling jewellery worn by a near-unrecognisable Andrea Riseborough. Indeed, the polish can feel excessive at first, lapsing into silliness, but as time goes on, this feeds into Ford’s point.

Instead of harsh realities, we get a delivery of very harsh fiction. Susan is sent a draft of a novel from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a piece of hard-boiled crime drama entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals’, which he’s dedicated to her. Like Wright’s original novel, the film plunges into this book’s narrative, in which Tony (Gyllenhaal again) goes through a night of hell travelling through rural Texas, as he and his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) are menaced and tortured by a band of rednecks, led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray. Their initial encounter is a prolonged and masterful exercise in tension, as Ray’s gang drive the family car off the road and proceed to psychologically torture their quarry. Tony’s inability to do anything about it is matched only by the anxiety that never stops building behind him. Nocturnal Animals is a film about weakness and insecurity, male weakness especially. Nocturnal animals prey on the weak.

The novel’s narrative brings a change in look and feel, going from polished galleries to the parched Texas sands. The book’s story is foreboding and cruel, and the shift in style feels the same way at first. The intertwining of narrative strands between Susan’s life, the novel, and flashbacks to hers and Edward’s marriage initially jar. Shifts between L.A. and the novel are usually signalled by Susan dropping the manuscript in a horrified daze. Yet, as Tony and Sheriff Andes (Michael Shannon, charm and accent as thick as molasses) chase the wrongdoers, and the switches between Hollywood glam and Hell Or High Water-alike grit become more frequent, they also begin to gel. Edward has dedicated his book to Susan for a reason, and her memories of him grow increasingly melancholy. This is by Edward’s design, though. Nocturnal Animals is a testament to the liberating power of creativity, as Edward expresses his darkest feelings to Susan using this narrative, a method he never could have used before their divorce. The weakness is dispelled by his creative strength.

Ford plays fast and loose with expectations throughout Nocturnal Animals. While he admirably keeps the interloping structure of narratives from the source novel, he also makes changes to accentuate the tonal shifts. In the novel, Morrow was a teacher and mother of three; in Ford’s world, she has only a floundering relationship and failing gallery to her name. These changes, these exaggerations, add an extra punch when emotion and violence do come to the fore. This and Andrew Dominik’s documentary on Nick Cave, One More Time With Feeling, would make an excellent double-bill treatise on how great creativity can be triggered by intense trauma. (All this begs the question: is Ford working out a weakness of his own in this adaptation? It hardly matters. This is a film that will offer wildly different ideas and meanings to different viewers)

It’s a tribute to Gyllenhaal and Adams that they keep the audience invested, even as tones and timelines pinball wildly. Both impress in roles that see them put aside natural charisma for broken people, whose pain is etched in every grimace. The eccentricities of the film’s look and tone extend to the supporting cast. What Michael Sheen or Laura Linney (A vision in pearls and a Southern-fried accent as Susan’s mother) are doing here is anyone’s guess, but they add undeniable flavours. Best of the bunch is Taylor-Johnson, delivering levels of ever-present menace many would have thought beyond him (Remember him as the leading man in Godzilla? Nope, us neither.)

What Ford has done here, as both writer and director, is remarkable. On the surface, Nocturnal Animals is over-stylized and potentially devoid of empathy. Yet, as it goes on, it forges its own path, keeping the style while making its angst more relatable and palpable. It’s a sleight of hand that’s both blatant in its machinations, yet surprising in its emotional power. The vividness of its colours and the horrors of its violence ensure a place in the memory, but there are levels at work here that mean Nocturnal Animals’ deeper meanings could sneak up on you when you least expect it.

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Review: Nightcrawler (2014)

Director: Dan Gilroy

***

In one of his skits in his show No Cure For Cancer, Denis Leary bemoaned the fact his generation was labelled the ‘TV Generation’, doing nothing but staring at the gogglebox all the time. As he points out, it’s no wonder: Lee Harvey Oswald was shot live one Sunday morning and they were afraid to change the channel for thirty years. It’s this paranoid reticence on which Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his fellow ‘nightcrawlers’ prey in Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, an efficiently entertaining hodge-podge of influences, armed with a blunt message. Inhale deeply; the underbelly awaits

It’s that ‘crawl’ in Nightcrawler that sets the mood. The ‘crawlers’ are the freelance film crews that capture the immediate aftermath (if not more) of car crashes, murders, home invasions and the like. Anyone who’s ever watched local network news in the US knows this kind of footage: handheld, swiftly shot and bloody. It’s an unrepentantly vile line of work, but there’s clearly money to be made. It’s a stark contrast to the views that accompany the opening credits. Wide shots of a glittery LA rope us in, while the city is in turn hemmed in by television masts and aerials. For all the high-speed camcorders darting about, the unsung hero of Nightcrawler is DoP Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia), who has clearly rewatched Heat to nail this teeming mass of lights interrupting dark chasms of corruption. There’s a lot hiding in the shadows, including our leading man Bloom.

We first see Bloom attempting a break-in at a storage depot by cutting the rail-link fence. One security scare and a fight later, and he’s trying to sell on his ill-gotten gains (Selling a fence to a fence? Arf-arf). He also takes the opportunity to look for a job with said fence. There’s desperation here, masked by a studied (literally, learned from a book) confidence. Bloom is a jack of all trades, looking for one to master. In the first few minutes we see him as a thief, a trespasser, a salesman and a negotiator; with his motor mouth and Brylcreem-drowned bonce, he’s ace most any legitimate job interview. Instead, Bloom hides in the dark recesses, trading in the untradeable. Gyllenhaal plays Bloom as detached from all around him, a Patrick Bateman-type surrounded by a lot less yuppies. His vocabulary of buzzwords is built for pitching ideas, prices and himself. Gyllenhaal absolutely gets the creepiness of Bloom without resorting to tics (It’s a wonder he didn’t give his eyelids a sprain with his excessive blinking in Prisoners).

Driving on the highway, Bloom spots a fiery car accident. More importantly, he spots the crawler crew filming the dramatic rescue. Watching the breakneck pace advocated by long-time nightcrawler Loder (Bill Paxton, slimy), you can see the fire in Bloom’s eyes. One cheap camcorder and police scanner later, and he’s on the hunt for saleable carnage. His first piece grabs the attention of CBS 2 News, in particular its news director Nina Romina. With Romina, we get the welcome return proper (the Thor films count for relatively little) of Rene Russo. In her finest role since The Thomas Crown Affair, she plays the unscrupulous director with a charming menace. That said, even she gets taken aback by the methods and drive of little boy Bloom. Though he’s certainly an keen observer like his namesake Leopold in Ulysses, he derives little from it on a personal level. It’s all about the money, and the opportunities presented by his new trade. He has no scruples about what he must do; why not move a body if it helps get a good shot for TV?

The bloody-mindedness of the modern media may be an obvious target, but Nightcrawler takes aim and nails its target head-on. Once we see Nina rush to get Bloom’s stuff on the air, the message is clear. Unfortunately, from that point Nightcrawler is full of vim, but it’s racing to no clear destination. It’s a film of ever-increasing loops; Bloom goes after bigger quarries, get caught in greater dangers and gets paid bigger cheques. We see his new business grow (including hiring a new assistant, Riz Ahmed’s suitably-panicked Rick), but Bloom scarcely changes. The ‘no-hugging, no-learning’ rule may have worked for Seinfeld, but in Nightcrawler it means there’s little risk. Like Bloom, we become passive observers of the (admittedly gritty) action. At least Gilroy makes sure to keep the action going. For the sake of speed, Bloom invests in a sporty red number (ensuring an immediate recall to superior films like Drive), before getting directly involved in one of his news stories. Nightcrawler pokes at possibilities of investigating worthy topics like race relations, but that’s ultimately shelved for a worthy-but-familiar lesson in media perversion. If it bleeds, Gyllenhaal will make sure it leads for a price.

Nightcrawler is a crawl through an off-kilter mind but, by tip-toeing around some fertile material, it can’t help but feel a little wanting. Stilll, it does offer some gleefully lurid thrills, plus the fine performances from Gyllenhaal and Russo. But this kind of media nightmare is nothing new; Nightcrawler may be mad as hell, but it could always take a bit more.

Review: Prisoners (2013)

Director: Denis Villeneuve

**

Unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, you can’t make B-movies and expect to be taken seriously. You can’t just take a potentially-troubling set up and then throw in ridiculous twists and hammy acting. That’d just be silly. It’d be even sillier still to play it all straight, whilst masquerading as a morality tale about the nature of guilt and the limits of vigilantism. Surely any sensible screenwriter would see that this setup would be crippled by its own jarring tonal shifts and suffocating twists. Despite all this, Prisoners exists.

Prisoners is unquestionably silly but, with an acclaimed director and decent cast in tow, it appears deaf to any criticisms that may come its way. That false confidence wouldn’t be entirely misplaced, as Prisoners starts off promisingly. Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) are abducted whilst their parents and older siblings celebrate Thanksgiving. The continuous shots of grey skies threatening rain and snow are an unsubtle metaphor for events to come (even if they are courtesy of cinematographic deity Roger Deakins). English scholars call this device ‘pathetic fallacy’. Keep those words in mind should you deign to watch Prisoners; you may find yourself grasping for such synonyms later.

The hunt begins with the girls’ fathers, Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) searching around their neighbourhood. The police arrives in the form of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and tension builds nicely. However, Anna’s brother (Dylan) notes a decrepit RV travelling around the local streets, and this is the point at which Prisoners starts to lose its way. The driver of the RV is Alex (Paul Dano), who has greasy hair, paedo standard issue big-eye glasses and the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. His mental afflictions rule him out as a suspect, but Keller is sure this is the man who took the girls. In the opening scenes, it was established that Keller is a survivalist (He keeps his cellar full of food, bottled water and guns for a very rainy day), but that’s no excuse for the severe lapse in sense and logic he’s about to undergo.

Director Denis Villeneuve brings a certain non-Hollywood gravitas with him in coming to this project; his previous film, the Oscar-nominated Incendies, established him as a director with a flair for both visuals and character. Try as he might, there is no escaping the feeling that he and this material are mismatched. One can imagine Villeneuve reading the first 30-odd pages of the script, signing on the dotted line to direct, and then returning to read the rest of the screenplay and potentially regretting his decision. If that’s the case, he probably stopped reading when Alex is released to his aunt (Melissa Leo),  at which point Keller takes the law into his own hands.

Keller kidnaps Alex, and holds him hostage in an abandoned property he owns, hoping to beat/intimidate a confession out of Alex. This could be a shocking conceit if only there was much, if any, indication Keller was conflicted about doing so. There are genuinely tense moments, but these serve to wash away any possibility of moral upset. Keller’s actions transcend common sense. The conceit of abducting the (possible) abductor is interesting, but the violence involved reduces it to another B-movie trope shooting above its pay grade. The explanation for Franklin’s or his wife Nancy’s (Viola Davis) decision to overlook Keller’s actions is either parental grief (natch) or a lack of characterisation (just as likely). Maria Bello gets a worse deal from the script as Keller’s wife Grace, who spends most of her screentime bedridden and crying.

Prisoners certainly isn’t without merit, but any serious intentions are swamped by an unnecessary violent streak, performances that reek of ham and cheese (Memo to Gyllenhaal: Stop. Bloody. Blinking!) and plot developments dafter than any brush (We haven’t even mentioned the priest, the guy with the mazes or the disappointing final reveal). It’s testament to Villeneuve that Prisoners does holding audience attention by keeping us guessing. It just can’t make up for the silly routes the story is all too happy to go down. Prisoners is so convinced of its own brilliance that it can’t recognize it’s A-grade hokum.

Review: Source Code (2011)

Director: Duncan Jones

****

Second chances are wonderful things; you can correct your mistakes, do things you didn’t get to do first time around and generally improve your situation. Of course, second chances are usually products of chance or happenstance; they’re rarely (if ever) foisted upon a person. Officer Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself forced with such a chance. He wakes up in the body of another man on board a commuter train. The pretty girl sitting across from him (Michelle Monaghan) addresses Coulter as Sean Fentress, his reflection looks nothing like him and, just when things can’t get any more confusing for Coulter, a bomb blast engulfs the train, killing all on board. Credit to director Duncan Jones; he can deliver one hell of an opening to a film.

Jones’ follow-up to the cerebral and haunting Moon is proof of the promise he showed with that film. Source Code may be an explosive thriller, but it boasts a certain maturity and intelligence that similar films seem to lack, not least in its bomb attack storyline.  Stevens was actually implanted in the memory of one of the victims of the train bombing, and has access to the final eight minutes of the journey to try and discover the bomber. Under the supervision of ‘Source Code’ inventor Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) and Miss Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), Stevens is plunged back into the dream repeatedly until the bomber is found. Source Code raises questions about a soldier’s duty and the limits to which it can be pushed, and balances these ideas with enough emotion and action to create a thriller of rare scope, both a race against time and a character piece. Gyllenhaal keeps things grounded as a likeable and understandably confused everyman, whilst Monaghan and Farmiga turn potential stock love interest/exposition roles into rounded, interesting characters (though Wright is a little too “mad scientist” in his performance).

Despite having to plunge us in the same scenario repeatedly, Jones is too skilled to let this repetition become repetitive, and extracts plenty of thrills (plus a few laughs) from Ben Ripley’s script. Given the slightly dour nature of the plot, there’s a sense of excitement and adventure to this tale, with a score (by Chris Bacon) reminiscent of North By Northwest, and a gripping race against time infused with the fears of our age (A bomber on a train? They haven’t gone away, y’know).

Sci-fi, by its nature, is dependent on the suspension of disbelief.  If you can swallow the implausibility of the scenario, you should enjoy Source Code; it’s no more ridiculous than the dream sharing in Inception. Indeed, the script comes across like a blend of Inception and The Manchurian Candidate. Whilst the former seemed like a tricky plot and eventually boiled down to a simple tale, Source Code starts off with a simple-yet-interesting idea which gets a little too complicated for its own good by the last reel. Still, go with it, and Source Code is a rewarding and engaging little thriller, with enough brains to match the big bang(s) it supplies.