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: Midnight Special (2016)

Director: Jeff Nichols

***

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Look at a trailer or poster for Midnight Special, and the name of one director will spring to mind. It’s unlikely to be that of its own director (and writer) Jeff Nichols, and that’s the way he wants it. When a new generation of directors raised on the movie brats get their hands on sufficient talent and budget, their original influences can dominate the landscape. In the case of Midnight Special, Nichols not only demonstrates a love and knowledge of the work of Steven Spielberg, but reminds us that his work is more than the PG-13-baiting list of favourites that immediately springs to mind. Spielberg’s legacy is determined largely by his capacity to entertain the masses, but this inclination tends to overlook his capacity for dark, adult thrillers. You don’t even have to look to Munich or Bridge of Spies for proof; the Indiana Jones series and Jurassic Park owe some of their reputations to the subversive dark streak that runs through the Bearded One’s CV. Midnight Special borrows its plot from some Spielbergs, and its tone from others, blending them into an effective reclamation of his oeuvre for all audiences.

We open in Sugarland Express territory, with Roy (Michael Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) hiding out in a motel, away from the law. With them is Alton (Jaeden Liberher), who Lucas and Roy have just kidnapped from the religious sect led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepherd). Like his namesake, Calvin is convinced the future is predetermined, specifically in the multilingual ramblings that periodically emerge from Alton, who has become an oracle to the cult. Alton may or may not be Roy’s son, but that’s as much certainty as we get in the early scenes. The boy is privy to some variety of paranormal abilities, but at first the film is less concerned with his powers than with Roy and Lucas’ efforts to keep him from the cult. As Roy, Lucas and Alton race to get further away, glimpses come and go of Alton’s abilities but, until the climax, Midnight Special plays out for the most part like a chase thriller in the early Spielberg mould (Think Duel or the aforementioned Sugarland Express). Roy and Lucas know of Alton’s abilities, as does Roy’s wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). On their trail is FBI investigator Paul Sevier (Adam Driver); much like Sevier, the audience learns of Alton’s abilities and influence second-hand (Ideas of secondhand witness run throughout; even nominal kidnappers Roy and Lucas watch reports of Alton’s abduction on the news). Nichols is too talented a writer and director to show his hand too early, and so builds anticipation by revealing the truth bit by bit. The interviews Sevier conducts with members of the cult hint at a possible armageddon, but even they can only speculate. The thrill comes from the unknown; the growing desire to find out Alton’s identity, be it alien, fallen angel or something else entirely, is Midnight Special’s lifeblood.

Roy helps Alton elude the authorities like Elliot helped E.T., but the narrative isn’t the only thing Midnight Special has in common with Spielberg’s film. The most identifiable trait it shares with his work is the care the characters have for one another. With the sect, the FBI and the military all bearing down on them, the familial bonds at the heart of the film are its most endearing and memorable aspect. Roy, Sarah and Lucas’ concern for Alton is uncynical, unquestioning, and certainly not naive. All are risking their lives for this little boy who may not even be a boy, but their connection to him is all that counts. There are hints that Roy and Sarah’s relationship is recovering from a Spielbergian absent-parent trauma, but it’s never over-elaborate or overplayed. It helps to have fine actors like Dunst and Shannon (The latter impressing in a relatively straight-and-narrow role) playing against Liberher, delivering a likeable turn shorn of any precociousness. Interestingly, Edgerton may be the best of the lot. Between his performance in his directorial debut The Gift and his unpolished everyman turn here, Edgerton is proving to be a subtle chameleon. This cast carry the film along, the gradual build echoing a similar approach to the final reveal in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Midnight Special is pacy, though the final edit is a bit of a mixed bag. Individual moments of tension see Nichols wrangle tension out of proceedings by extending them by a precious few frames before a sudden cut. Yet, individual precision can’t overcome the fact that some supporting characters and plot details are left wanting. Audiences might be left wanting by the eventual reveal; even coming from the director of Take Shelter and Mud, two films that revelled in their final ambiguities, this one will prove divisive.

It’s tricky to argue that Midnight Special does much new with the Spielberg mythos. There are interesting age-reversals at work in some of the roles (Compare Driver’s fresh-faced authority figure with Shannon’s craggy protagonist), but the basic narrative points are a little too indebted to what came before. Still, there’s a simple unabashed magic at work here, recalling a time when ambition and talent worked over predictability. A familiar taste, perhaps, but it’s made from wholesome ingredients.

Review: Man Of Steel (2013)

Director: Zack Snyder

**

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

Loath though you may be to admit it, as superheroes go Superman is almost unpalatably wholesome. He’s an alien who cannot be killed; how are you supposed to forge an emotional connection with this creature? Created back in the 1930s, when irony was primarily an adjective, Superman was the embodiment of all-American derring-do and justice. As time went on, he became more of a representation of the best in humankind, eventually becoming a multi-million dollar Christ allegory. There are a couple of moments in Man Of Steel that hammer home the idea of Supes as God’s kin, and they are forehead-slappingly obvious. Not that you need to be told, but 300 and Sucker Punch director Zack Snyder is not a subtle man.

The first two installments of Christopher Reeve’s stint as the son of Krypton are still enjoyable, but they also reek of cheese and nostalgia, with little bite. The next two films are best forgotten, as is Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s indulgent trip down memory lane. In Man Of Steel Superman steps out of Reeve’s shadow only to end up shrouded in another shadow, one with pointed ears and a gravelly voice. Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot set a dark and brooding template for superheroics, one that has raked in almost $2.5 billion thus far. With The Avengers essentially owning the fun and kitsch superhero image, plus efforts at comedy having sunk Superman once before, Man Of Steel sees Superman go dark under Nolan’s watch as producer. Because that’s what audiences want from their superheroes now, right? Darkness is one thing, but overstuffed and repetitive stories are very much another.

Man Of Steel opens on Krypton, as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) discusses ways to save the planet’s dying core with its rulers. A coup is attempted by General Zod (Michael Shannon), but it fails, and he’s frozen and sent into space just in time to see Krypton implode. This begs the question: why bother banishing him when everyone is going to die anyway? Anyhoo, Jor-El sends his newborn son into space to save him, along with a Kryptonian DNA MacGuffin which will come back to haunt us later in the film. David Goyer’s script has too much going on; too much plot, too much backstory, too much speechifying. Every line is written to be delivered with the solemnity of gospel. Some of the dialogue is repetitive, and it’s tricky to deliver this stuff when alien generals are destroying towns with lasers and issuing cross-galactic threats.

On Earth, the former Kal-El is now Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), a bearded outsider grappling with the deific powers he’s inherited. His childhood with Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both as warm and encouraging as apple pie) is told in flashbacks, but the back and forth between the past and present serves only to break up the story. Pa Kent lectures his young’un before we jump back to the now adult Clark, but there’s little connective tissue between the two. Meanwhile, the present-day action jumps ahead of itself continuously. One moment, Clark is saving workers on a burning oil rig; the next he’s meeting Lois Lane (Amy Adams). In an apparent coincidence, she’s investigating the discovery of something beneath layers of Arctic ice, a discovery at which Clark just happens to take one of his low-paid jobs whilst roaming in search of himself, and which will turn out to be the Fortress of Solitude. Less time on the speeches and more time on the plot contrivances would have been a help, not least in Lois and Superman’s rushed romance.

Before long, Zod is free from his intergalactic ice cube and on the hunt for interplanetary lebensraum to rebuild Krypton. Discovering Kal-El on Earth, he chooses his target out of vengeance and to find the MacGuffin from earlier. At the very least, Shannon’s Zod gets more solid motivation than Terence Stamp’s chilly contempt in Superman II. Shannon’s bug-eyed stare and intensity certainly sell his portentous dialogue, which isn’t easy to do when your outfit looks like the offspring of a Ringwraith and the Space Jockey. Eventually and inevitably, we get to a showdown in Metropolis, replete with collapsing skyscrapers and extras dashing for their lives. Man Of Steel may be aiming for The Dark Knight’s sense of relevant urgency, but willy-nilly destruction on a large scale isn’t the thrilling sight onscreen that it used to be. In a post-9/11 scenario, it sits uncomfortably with the darker aspirations reflected in the muted blues and beiges of Amir Mokri’s camerawork and Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score. Snyder believes thrills come from sudden close-ups on wide shots, sometimes zooming in twice. Between this and the lens flares, someone needs to get J.J. Abrams’ lawyers on the line.

The cast do their best, sometimes in spite of the script. Adams’ Lane is spunky, Shannon is all brooding, snipy menace and Crowe’s Jor-El is given much more to do than Brando’s, but his presence/essence/soul/whatever is part of one of several plot contrivances than will leave you confused, and then annoyed. Laurence Fishburne gets shortchanged as an underwritten Perry White, and the likes of Christopher Meloni and Richard Schiff come and go with little impact. But what of Cavill? Crucially, he’s a near-perfect fit for Supes’ new blue ensemble, a fine mix of self-doubt and quasi-regal bearing. He shoulders Man Of Steel and guides it through choppy overlong waters. Clark’s elation when he first practices flight in his new regalia is one of the film’s high points.

Man Of Steel is a passable entertainment, delivering all the explosions, fights and and broad CGI vistas that $225 million can buy. Yet, once the credits roll a shrug rolls across the shoulders like Superman’s cape. After all, there’s only so long you can tolerate two near-immortals throwing each other through buildings and kicking the almighty crap out of each other. Handsome and energetic it may be, but super it is not.

Review: Mud (2013)

Director: Jeff Nichols

****

This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie

It’s a commonly-held belief that Matthew McConaughey has only just lifted himself out of a cinematic purgatory with a string of great performances in one excellent film after another. However, that’s three fallacies for the price of one. He’s always been a capable performer, full of charisma with side portions of menace or dignity as required. What’s more, there are plenty of little gems scattered throughout his CV. For every Sahara, there’s a Frailty; for every Fool’s Gold there is a Lone Star.

Yet McConaughey has yet to star in a classic that could come to define his career. The closest he’s come thus far is arguably his debut, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. His latest string of winning performances have all been in films that, entertaining and well-made as they may be, are far from their directors’ bests (Friedkin’s Killer Joe, Magic Mike for Steven Soderbergh, reuniting with Linklater on Bernie). Alas, Jeff Nichols’ Mud continues in that vein. It’s compelling viewing on its own terms, but a lot of its cred comes from its leading man. Credit where credit’s due, however, Mud benefits from the efforts of two leading men.

After the solitary paranoia of Michael Shannon’s bug-eyed turn in Take Shelter, Nichols widens his gaze to include two fascinating portraits of male isolation. Ellis (a terrifically steely-eyed Tye Sheridan) is a typical teenager, restlessly looking for adventure in the everyday. One day, he and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) borrow a motorboat and sneak down their local river, a little stream by the name of the Mississippi. This setting alone invokes a certain atmosphere, ripe with clammy air and the scent of whitewash from a Mark Twain novel. They head for an island down river where they discover a boat washed up into the trees from a flood years before. This is the point where Tom Sawyer becomes a little too obvious as an influence, with our own Tom and Huck Finn on the Mississippi. The film’s version of Injun Joe goes only by the monicker of Mud (McConaughey), a stranger who’s living in the boy’s boat when they discover it. With a past as murky as the waters surrounding the island, Ellis is fascinated by Mud, to the point that he agrees to help Mud out. Anyone on the run from the law needs all the help he can get.

As the latest chapter of the ‘McConaissance’, Mud sees McConaughey at great ease, with a drawl so low and laid back, it practically reaches his ankles. With a single look, he inspires suspicion yet still maintains a magnetic allure that he’s impossible to ignore. McConaughey makes Mud’s mysteries mythical. Yet, as good as the Texan is, the real star is young Sheridan as Ellis. With a shaky home (Ray McKinnion and Sarah Paulson star as Ellis’ parents) and little to do in the local one-horse town, Ellis could have been a standard mopey teen. Instead, over the course of the film Sheridan’s wide-eyed innocence becomes rigid determination before succumbing to childishness once more. It’s a rich and varied performance from the newcomer; woe betide any studio executive who opts to waste him on a tween-friendly franchise. Sheridan and McConaughey make Mud more than a Twain rip-off, though its myriad influences bleed in repeatedly. When it’s not being Huck Finn 2.0, it feels like a less gritty version of Stand By Me. These are high watermarks that even a talent like Nichols struggles to overcome.

As Mud runs from the law and bounty hunters towards his waiting love (Reese Witherspoon, sober), Mud runs from being southern-fried character study to something more generic by the denouement. The measured pacing of the first two-thirds meanders into gun-toting thriller territory. By that stage, though, Mud has lodged in the memory. To be more precise, McConaughey and Sheridan lodge in the memory, whilst the rest can be taken or left. Mud lacks Take Shelter’s edge but, with a hazy look and feel and winning performances, it works just fine.

Review: Take Shelter (2011)

Director: Jeff Nichols

****

Every once in a while, a film comes along that almost single-handedly promotes an actor from supporting player to nudging the A-list. Michael Shannon has been a commanding presence in many good and not-so-good films over the last number of years (World Trade Center, Revolutionary Road), with his intense stare and distinctive drawl, Southern fried and thick as molasses. One would wonder if that intensity would translate into blockbuster territory, but he is playing General Zod next, so we’ll see how it goes. The intensity is perfect for Take Shelter; much like its star, it’s an intense and unforgettable piece of work.

If you went through what Curtis LaForche (Shannon) goes through in Take Shelter, chances are you’d be somewhat edgy too. Jeff Nichols’ film opens with Curtis getting caught in a shower of thick oil-like rain. Then he wakes up, goes to his job as a well driller and all is well. That is, until the next stormy nightmare. And the one after that. And the one after that. Like the dreams, Take Shelter grows beautifully in intensity as Curtis plunges further into possible dementia. Are the dreams symptomatic of an illness or of a real impending disaster? Curtis considers both options, seeing a counsellor and building a massive storm bunker, much to the chagrin and upset of Curtis’ wife Samantha (the ethereal Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). As Curtis’ family, friends and job get swept up in his paranoia, Shannon is ever in the eye of the storm. His performance anchors Take Shelter, with a perfectly-defined and exhaustively crafted role. Whether or not he is mentally ill, Curtis is scarily focused and unshakeable, yet is always sympathetic. It will be an injustice if Shannon does not receive serious awards consideration for this role. Chastain and the rest of the support are uniformly excellent, but Shannon is the star on the cusp, and he owns this film.

Writer/director Nichols says the role wasn’t written specifically for Shannon, but he fits perfectly into Nichols’ disturbing vision of a small-town man confronting immense personal demons. Nichols wrings pure drip-feed tension from this scenario, with nightmares combining with the eerie banality of the everyday, culminating in a third act boasting such edge-of-the-seat magnetism as to render you unable to rip your eyes away from the screen. One of the most tense scenes of the whole year involves a man turning a door handle; with Take Shelter, the beauty is in the simplicity. Take Shelter is so unassuming that it’s a difficult film to characterize, and more might be revealed on second viewing. The final reel is either a perfect ending or a cop-out, but by then it doesn’t really matter; Take Shelter and its magnificent leading man will have left their thunderous impact upon you. Ignore it at your peril.