Sunday, August 30, 2020
Neo-Noir Watch: Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Director: Tom Ford
A lot of the coverage of the release of this film was that it was directed by Tom Ford, a fashion designer - which is an interesting idea. One would assume a fashion designer has an eye for visuals, lifestyle cues, wardrobe and staging. And - arguably, Ford delivers on all of these things.
He's cast beautiful people and dressed them well. He's hired some beautiful people and dressed them down. And, of course, there's the opening sequence which casts some (let's be honest) not gorgeous people and dressed them not at all. For Ford - this is a hellish horror, absurd and tasteless, open to interpretation and meaningless, so awful its funny. And knowingly hard to look at. And... is, at best, a very small building block of what is arguably his point with the film, and set me to thinking about what and who a Tom Ford is and how that would set them for empathy and sympathy with characters in a story.
The grotesque that Ford insists we watch as we settle in goes nowhere, and is there to prop up Amy Adams' feelings about the worthlessness of a career in high end galleries and art, the absurdity of her job and role, the emptiness of not-art posing as such. Which could have been done just as easily with, I dunno, sad clowns or Precious Moments figurines.
Adams is beautiful and beautifully shot, like a perfume ad (a subject Ford has experience with). She perfectly and sadly returns home. Her beautiful and clearly cheating-on-her husband, Armie Hammer, is curt. She receives a package that includes a galley of her ex-husband's new and soon-to-be-published-novel, "Nocturnal Animals". It is dedicated to her.
She goes to a party where Michael Sheen is absurd and clearly lays out how shallow their life is. She returns home and reads the manuscript. Mostly, for the rest of the movie she reads the manuscript in awe, in a swirling cyclone of emotion - tying her ex-husband to the lead of the novel and herself to that character's wife. She stares, red-eyed, feeling the feels of the novel.
There are flashbacks and we see how Adams and her ex (Jake Gyllenhaal) met, how her mom put the notion in her head he'd be a disappointment, and how he turns out to be that disappointment (amazingly, he does not become a huge success as a novelist overnight). Ford, who is originally from Texas, states that the characters are in Austin and attending Univ. of Texas (my alma mater and employer) and - sure. I feel like there's meaning there, but I missed it.
The bits of their life and what happened are done well, in small bits, all we really need to know in parts of scenes. No one enters or exits. Scenes begin and end. It's packet-sized glimpses - and needed, because otherwise we're watching Amy Adams look sad or stressed out, not as she reads, but *thinks* about what she read. Her world is sterile and well-lit. She does not have earthiness or "real" art.
The book her husband sent is a riff on a Jim Thompson novel, one of the Dirty South novels that you might get from Elmore Leonard or Joe R. Lansdale. It is full of the city-dweller's agoraphobia and the schedule holder's fear of surprises. It's grisly and gritty. We don't get to read it, just see Amy Adams super-wow'd by it.
There's something positively Creative Writing 101 about Nocturnal Animals. At some point in the film, in one of the real-life flashbacks, Amy Adams' character states that Jake Gyllenhaal shouldn't write about his own life, it makes her mind wander.* Gyllenhaal waves his arm and says that's all anyone ever does, really. But it sure feels like the author yelling at the audience not to judge, mixed with some profound insight that boils down to "I have overshot on 'write what you know'."
It also has a weird vibe of "showing up the ex-girlfriend who didn't have faith in the boy who wanted to write". Like, the whole thing feels like some low-key wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy in which the sucessful Hollywood-type is *actually* miserable, but the guy who gave up his life to art has finally done it, and he wants to not just succeed, but wants to rub it in the face of the ex-wife and show her what she walked away from. Only: classy. And devastatingly. That's how good this book is.
The book is about a guy who is a whole lot like the ex-husband and his wife (who is a lot like Adams' character) and their teen daughter. Driving to Marfa (as arty a destination as you will find in Texas), they are hijacked by rowdy assholes. The wife and daughter wind up raped and murdered. Gyllenhaal teams up with Michael Shannon playing a Tommy Lee Jones character to first seek justice and then revenge.
It's standard "if you can't see a McDonald's within a mile, hillbillies will rape and kill you" stuff that drives everything from The Hills Have Eyes to Deliverance.
(A) I'm not really sure the story-within-a-story is all that compelling. It feels like one of those depressing stories that's depressing for depression's sake - because that's deep, yo. And there's not enough of it to ever feel like a full story in and of itself or earn either Adams' reactions or the ending. (B) I am aware it's meant to be a mirror of the weakness that her ex felt he showed her and how that plays out in a simulated scenario. But I'm kinda like... "and...?" (C) And those Texas accents are terrible.
Since seeing Harley Quinn back before COVID, I've certainly been thinking about how "not all movies are made for me" - and I try to give those movies a lot of leeway when I watch them and try to understand who they're for. I also think neo-noir is super hard, and it's also a weird entry point for a lot of newer directors - and the results are often so mixed. There's Chandler's fascination with wealth, but there's too much of an attraction to that wealth and not Marlowe's jaundiced eye about it in favor of something closer to envy.
The movie feels made for Ford and people Ford would know, or people who would aspire to be people Ford would know. Openly admitting that some real dingbats win acting awards is not something most people find some naughty to say out loud. Recognizing a whole lot of "high-end" art is dumb bullshit is not a controversial notion to Jon Q. Public. And that those in the arts tends to mutually prop up everything as being great and worthy even if they don't deserve it might be the one cat that slips out of the bag. Dropping in some of that same high-end modern art that 95% of the public isn't going to recognize or care about to ostensibly push your narrative is a choice for some specific folks.
But it's also interesting that a life outside of that of the artist we only see as cold-hearted mothers, cheating businessman spouses and the murder fantasy of the novel.
Is it a bad movie? No. It's got a good hook, the actors play their parts well (even when doing semi-nonsensical things), the lighting and set design is astonishing. But after reading a few reviews (because I remember the movie being very well reviewed), I'm unclear what was so well liked other than the honestly stellar aesthetics of the film. And they are an art-designer's dream - pushing the narrative, telling us things (sometimes with the subtlety of a baseball bat to the nose) about the characters. But the story itself left me alternately uninterested and confused why THIS story-within-a-story spoke so much to Adams' character and why it moved her so profoundly rather than feeling like a novelty to be written into a story (and dispatched).
I am also trying to be sensitive to the notion that I may be missing something, that this may not be for me. But, like a lot of modern noir, moving characters into a position of being miserable in beautiful clothes and mise-en-scene, just doesn't feel like enough.
There's a through-line in reviews about "the nature of art" or something magical about "artists" vs. "non-artists". That Adams' character is dead, having sold art she doesn't believe in, that her ex-husband, who we never see, who remains invisible and impossible to judge except by his supposedly profoundly moving work, is... something? Alive? Able to write a pretty good book? But that we can see the artists in their creations is some High School Art 1 type insight. So... I dunno. Someone help me out with something other than generalities.
*even this criticism feels weird because, yes, obviously, someone's wife would be more aware of the source of material and would probably have presence of mind to know "this general criticism does not pertain to anyone not living in this apartment".