Directed by Tom Ford Written by Tom Ford Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber & Armie Hammer Film Review by Dean Pettipher
Few wield such impressive capacities to so brutally and yet so beautifully illustrate the vast disparities between appearance and reality that come even close to the masters of fashion design. Thus, Hollywood and all of her ebullient, tireless lovers were most certainly blessed when the Oscar-nominated drama, A Single Man (2009) eloquently and elegantly revelled in that very declaration, courtesy of the world-renowned fashion designer, Tom Ford, who admirably dared to take on the challenge of procuring the art of filmmaking for his already striking personal repertoire of mastered trades. Having tasted the alluring movie magic and left audiences with a single illustrious, tear-like drop to stain audience hearts with tempting notions of how his own unique voice could contribute to the wider cinema community, in a manner that has a potential amounting to proportions known only by cinema’s directorial legends, Ford has returned, over half a decade later, with endearing fearlessness. The well-earned consequence is Nocturnal Animals (2016): a fabulously distinctive work of art exploring the uncomfortably possible implications of various turpitudes committed both within and without the velvet, perilous realms of romantic love. Moreover, if audiences acquired just one lingering thought following their contemplation of Ford’s second dive into the silver screen, it may very likely echo his words spoken in a recent BBC interview:
“We have something quite new in culture, which is this idea of happiness, which just stretches out. You hit a moment and you get all these things and then guess what? You’re just happy. Well that doesn’t exist and it’s not part of the human experience. Happiness is sadness, happiness, boredom, nostalgia, longing, pain [and] suffering. That’s what life is. And if you buy into this concept of being always happy, you’re going to be disappointed.”
Let not the ostensibly dire albeit defiantly truthful cynicism deter one from cherishing the cinematic masterpiece, however, for Nocturnal Animals achieves all that Ford declared that he hoped to always accomplish with his films. That is to say, for more reasons than the aforementioned philosophical concepts, the picture truly “haunts you,” “challenges you,” “makes you think,” “entertains you while you’re watching” and, above all, “stays with you.”
Ford has not only helmed the project as the director but he has also produces and writes the screenplay. Concerning the latter responsibility, Ford has expertly adapted the novel, which is in turn written by the author Austin Wright, entitled Tony and Susan. The transition from prose to dialogue and comparatively much more succinct accompanying descriptions has resulted in an intriguing, thrilling plot that seamlessly intertwines multiple layers, which the marketing campaign rightly dared not shed light upon, for fear of deflating the slit-throat suspense of the feature on a catastrophic scale. Scene order has evidently enjoyed thoughtful, microscopic attention, working hand-in-hand with equally carefully-composed dialogue that drips backstory and other devices known for creating substantial emotional depth in film, as if those qualities made up the purest holy water, which was all but dried up entirely, upon the fiercely rough, blazing dirt trails of the Texan deserts. The vigilantly-concocted story is brought into a dazzling, sweet but often eerie existence by shamelessly seductive imagery that bursts with a varied overflow of vivid, voluptuous beauty, ceaselessly heightened by stunning colour shades and schemes, in a style that can only be described as magnificently Ford-esque. Furthermore, the latest film from Ford, which proudly draws much influence from the fascinating worlds of fashion and modern art, represents the finest example to date of the visual poetry of a filmmaker instilling the sentiment of a painting in motion within its mercilessly captivated audiences.
Ford’s success goes further, for he proves himself as one of few artists able to employ the directing craft in such a way that illuminates a path for his entire cast towards conceiving their finest possible performances. Amy Adams, whose boundless degree of sheer resplendence has shone at its brightest in all of her work to date, delivers an astutely-composed presentation of an ostensibly flawless high achiever increasingly at the mercy of guilt rooted in the past, as well as fear in the wake of a suddenly less certain future potentially destroyed by that very untidy history. One simply cannot deny the overwhelming awe inspired by her ravishing presence, particularly while she stands both firm and frightened in a raven-black dress that could only have been designed for her employment. While her role in Arrival (2016) will be the one more likely to attract award season attention, since her part in the science fiction thriller alongside a much smaller ensemble of fellow mega stars is ultimately much greater in terms of size and political significance for women in film especially, while fortunately remaining equal in relation to acting quality, her role alongside the comparatively more crowded, glistening assemblage in Nocturnal Animals warrants the assertion that Adams appears set on a rapid ascension to the ranks of Hollywood goddesses, such as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. The second major role, occupied by Jake Gyllenhaal, serves as the most essential ingredient for the central mystery and its exhilarating exploration. Gyllenhaal executes the presentation of a gentle soul lost within internal struggles of perilous depths superbly. While he may not cross physical boundaries previously exceeded in Nightcrawler (2014) or Southpaw (2015), he embraces the emotional turmoil along with the reflective intelligence of his character, an aspiring writer from the Deep South who is desperate to hold on to unwilling treasures of the heart, in a manner that rivals his Oscar-nominated performance in Brokeback Mountain (2005). However, while the leads are magnificent, the supporting cast glow just as marvellously, if not more so, in a collaboration that successfully results in an overdose of cinematic excellence.
Along the dark, treacherous, uncertain dirt road of Nocturnal Animals, audiences encounter a host of fully-fledged characters portrayed by actors on an ostensibly unstoppable roll in their respective careers. One must begin with Michael Shannon, who appears destined to play the politics-hardened officer of the law who injects an unexpected dose of humour into the tale with sharp wit that is often at once a frank admission in the wake of indifferent realism and then an embrace of harsh cynicism. Shannon’s performance may prompt recollection of the memorable work produced by Matthew McConaughey and particularly Woody Harrelson in the television series entitled True Detective (2014-Present), before ultimately encouraging indulgence in his own uniquely brooding presence capitalised upon by such a role.
Armie Hammer also makes a pleasing appearance as an undisputedly handsome, dashing husband who is for sure not short of bleak but necessary character failings. Hammer’s role here was the smallest of his three performances showcased at the London Film Festival 2016. When considering Hammer’s contributions to The Birth of a Nation (2016) and Free Fire (2016), one cannot help but admire his apparent humbleness in taking up both leading and supporting roles. Such a determination to pursue his craft through a reasonable variety of parts proves Hammer’s versatility as an artist and will indeed aid his gradually more prominent presence within the mainstream spotlight. Similarly, Isla Fisher also demonstrates her willingness to pour her heart, soul and flamboyant energy into roles great and small, to the extent that her supporting role in Nocturnal Animals (2016) will linger in memory just about as much as the leading ones. Fisher has demonstrated this feat before, most notably in The Great Gatsby (2013). The up-and-coming young British actress, Ellie Bamber, follows the aforementioned standard of effort and the fruits that follow in a role that must not be written of further, for the sake saving such delights for future audiences. However, it is Aaron Taylor-Johnson whose incredible performance as a malevolent, quixotic antagonist that seriously scars. With his wonderful mastery of the accent from the Deep South in addition to his seemingly effortless body movements and facial expressions, Taylor-Johnson fuels the tension, the suspense and the chaos in a manner not seen to such an astonishing extent since Heath Ledger’s interpretation of The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). Consequently, he too illustrates his versatile nature, especially when his latest performance is considered in relation to his parts in productions like Anna Karenina (2012) and Albert Nobbs (2011). If just one performance from Nocturnal Animals should earn an Oscar nomination, few would argue against Taylor-Johnson being put forward for the honour.
Nocturnal Animals does not avoid a cause for audience frustration, for its conclusion, while certainly demanding to “stay with you”, wraps up in such a way that leaves one almost criminally thirsty for more. Moreover, in what might perhaps be deemed an over-analysing of the plot structure, one might argue that, in the grand scheme of things, chiefly in the wake of the denouement, the stakes are not as high as is so often implied, resulting in an anti-climax for those who feel they were misled by the trailers and other marketing ploys towards a different flavour of intensity. However, such thoughts are only prompted with irritating urgency by the last shot of the movie, until which point the journey has without question consistently felt like a fresh, aesthetically-spoiling thriller from the very beginning. Thus, the ending was clearly no accident, or a result of last-minute haste, in spite of its apparent abruptness.
One might find it odd that Nocturnal Animals was not likened in the publicity efforts with Gone Girl (2014), since the cynical sensibilities that thrive on exposing the exaggerated and overrated value placed upon entrenched social constructions like marriage as definitive sources of eternal happiness scream just as fervently. However, the comparison with the thriller helmed by David Fincher proved to be more of the curse than a gift for The Girl on the Train (2016), which appeared to be ruthlessly compared with the 2015 Oscar season drama, since the constant attempts to indulge in such hype often resulted in one declaring the film to be a flop at worst and a plain distraction at best, simply because it was not the other, in the sense that one movie failed to instil the same exhilarating mood inspired by another similar film. Good examples of the phenomenon are Ridley Scott’s historical period dramas: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), Robin Hood (2010) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). One cannot help but wonder if at least part of the sometimes harsh criticisms of such films resulted from their constant comparison, made principally by the most influential voices in the world of cinema, with Scott’s millennium masterpiece, Gladiator (2000). While all of the films that followed the award-winning commercial hit of course had their flaws, they were all in the end perfectly decent epics, which were all tragically doomed to at least some small amount of disdain because they were not exactly like Gladiator. For avid film fans, the feeling may at least in part resemble the futile attempts to re-capture the connection of a lost love in exactly the same guise of adoration with a new one. It is a magic that cannot be re-created in exactly the same fashion but there are many spells capable of creating magic of another, equally-compelling sort, just waiting to be discovered through patience and dedication.
Fortunately, Nocturnal Animals appears safe, for the most part, from such comparisons to former production greats within its genre, achieving victory in being recognized as an excellent cinematic work in its own right. Nevertheless, regarding the future, in order to push himself further, Ford must consider writing an original screenplay for his next feature, since each of his two films have been based on books. He must never abandon the search for superb stories hidden within the pages of good novels, for one does not mean to imply that an adapted screenplay is easier to scribe or ceaselessly carries more emotional weight than an original script, especially when bearing in mind the late director, Anthony Minghella, who after feeling with all but absolute certainty that he would never again undertake the task of adapting a novel into a movie after helming the gold standard of such endeavours that was The English Patient (1996), for whatever reason, he would go on to direct one film after another based on famed literature, such as The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) and Cold Mountain (2003). However, Ford shows much potential in his latest movie for his own more innovative ideas to flourish, if they are done right, as well as if they are blessed by the support of the good fortune known to tease those who work hard and with admirable bravery in search of the unknown. In the meantime, Nocturnal Animals has succeeded in bringing a feast for thought to the silver screen that must not be missed.
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