Tuesday, December 27, 2016

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

Written & Directed by Tom Ford


Where & When: Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood, CA.  December 20, 2016  2:00 PM


When it was announced that Tom Ford, the renowned creator of sleek, colorful and extremely sexy clothing who first came to fame after reviving the Gucci brand in the '90's before later launching his own eponymous line, was directing a feature film, the news was met a little curiosity and a lot of skepticism. But that 2009 film, "A Single Man", based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, received rapturous praise for it's polished look, skillful direction and remarkable performances, particularly from lead Colin Firth who went on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. This haunting film was one of my favorites that year and I couldn't wait to see what Mr Ford would do next.

It took some time because of the time-consuming demands of his day-job but Mr Ford has finally returned with his follow-up feature, "Nocturnal Animals". This stylish story-within-a-story takes us on a dark journey of a privileged yet dissatisfied woman whose life is disrupted by the arrival of a just completed novel written by a man from her past with it's disturbing contents rattling her in more ways than one. "Nocturnal Animals" is another visual stunner with plenty of thrilling twists and turns in addition to featuring some excellent work from all of the actors involved yet the emotional pulse of the film is far too icy and detached to fully draw you in.

Images of nude, obese women dancing provocatively opens the film, clearly designed to elicit shock and outrage to viewers. This turns out to be part of a successful art exhibit, curated by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a Los Angeles gallery owner. A striking woman of wealth and prestige, from her flaming red hair to severe make-up to her high-fashion clothing, she should be elated. But Susan appears troubled and unhappy. The relationship with her husband and business partner (Armie Hammer) has grown more strained and distant due to him constantly leaving town for work-related matters. Yet something even deeper is bothering her.

After receiving a manuscript from her former husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) with a note wanting her opinion of his new work, Susan is taken aback. This is because she hasn't spoken to him in almost twenty years despite many attempts to contact him. The book, called "Nocturnal Animals", is dedicated to Susan with the title sharing a nickname Edward had given her during their marriage.

As Susan begins to read, the story unfolds on screen. A family consisting of Tony Hastings (also played by Mr. Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura, (Isla Fisher) and India (Ellie Bamber) their teenage daughter travel down a long stretch of highway through West Texas. A car driving recklessly passes by with India flipping them the bird. The occupants of the vehicle want them to pull over but Tony refuses. A dangerous chase ensues until the Hastings are run off the road. The trio of foul, imposing men, with the leader appearing to be Ray, (played with searing menace by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) begin to harass and torment the family. Tony, a decent man paralyzed with fear and panic, watches helplessly as two of the men take his wife and child off in their car while he is dumped in the middle of nowhere by the other.

It should be of little surprise about the tragic outcome, leaving Tony racked with guilt and despair. Detective Andes (Michael Shannon) had been working on the case with no leads until a year later when a possible suspect is apprehended. Tony identifies him as one of the men involved and with the other killed during a robbery attempt, there's only Ray left to capture. It doesn't take long for an arrest but due to only circumstantial evidence, Ray is set free. Andes, soon to retire from the force, suggests they take justice in to their own hands.

Painful loss, deep regret and a hunger for revenge are a large part of the book. These feelings begin to trigger in Susan memories of her marriage to Edward and looks back at that time through a series of flashbacks. One key scene has Laura Linney making a brief appearance as Susan's mother. With a helmet of lacquered hair, a power suit and martini in hand, she warns her daughter not to marry Edward, feeling he's too weak to handle her needs. With a defiant desire to prove her wrong, Susan marries him. But her mother was correct and causes him unnecessary anguish and betrayal. By the time Susan finishes the book, she realizes she has become a literary inspiration.

Much like his work in fashion, Mr Ford has a strong, dramatic eye and a clear concept of how he wants his vision to come across. His influences lean more towards iconic auteurs like Hitchcock and Kubrick with their distinctive way of storytelling before filtering it through to create his own memorable imagery. Oscar nominated cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who worked on “Atonement” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin”, helped create the different looks of each story with vividly rich color in the real world and a murky grime for the fictional story. Based on the novel, "Tony and Susan" by Austin Wright, Mr. Ford has given each story layered meanings yet neither narrative is effectively well-textured and the characters are far from complex.

"Nocturnal Animals" may not be as emotionally impactful as Mr. Ford's previous work in cinema but he still displays a vibrant dramatic flair and expert direction of his performers that makes this moody thriller a compelling view.