Monday, January 9, 2017

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS 2016

Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review. Therefore, many crucial
plot points are revealed and referenced for the purpose of analysis. 


Amy Adams as Susan Morrow
“Do you ever feel like your life has turned into something you never intended?”

Susan Morrow is a successful Los Angeles art gallery owner who lives a life of lacquered, heavily curated wealth in the kind of sterile, fortress-like compound Architectural Digest likes to try to convince us are homes. They’re domiciles, but by no stretch of the imagination are they homes.
Susan, who sports, or, more accurately, hides behind, a severe, vision-concealing hairdo, shares this steel and cement mausoleum with her model-perfect financier husband Hutton—who looks precisely like what you’d imagine a man named Hutton would look like—and several million dollars’ worth of art. Art for which Susan harbors little affection and must occasionally sell in order to keep up appearances while her husband’s business flounders.
Armie Hammer as Hutton Morrow
From the way she occupies space without actually inhabiting it, and from the way her makeup and dress appears designed to conceal and camouflage; we can tell that Susan is at some kind of a crossroads. She exhibits all the traits of the well-upholstered midlife crisis (career and creature comforts secured, the “Am I happy?” dilemma rears its head), but there’s something more. It has to do with her past...and it's tearing Susan apart. 

“What right do I have to not be happy? I have everything. I feel ungrateful not to be happy.”

Jake Gyllenhaal as Edward Sheffield/Tony Hastings
Into this environment of ennui arrives a manuscript which turns out to be the proofs of a soon-to-be-published novel by Susan’s ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an aspiring writer whom she hasn’t seen or been in contact with for 19-years. In fact, their breakup was so acrimonious and hurtful (she left after secretly aborting their child and cheating on him with the “handsome and dashing” Hutton) Edward never remarried and all attempts by Susan to contact him have been met with his hanging up on her. (Will future generations ever know the ecstasy of slamming down a phone receiver in anger?)
Michael Shannon as Bobby Andes
If the timing and arrival of this parcel weren’t already fraught with portent—delivered, significantly, by a shadowy figure driving a vintage, chocolate brown Mercedes—then certainly Susan suffering a this-can’t-be-a-good-omen paper cut while opening the package provides plenty of additional cause for concern. But the novel’s title “Nocturnal Animals” (a onetime term of endearment Edward had for his chronically insomniatic ex-wife), its dedication (“For Susan”), and uncharacteristically genial note crediting her with inspiring him, hints perhaps at the possibility of one of those timely, estranged couple reconciliations beloved of rom-coms.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ray Marcus
But when her husband goes away for a business meeting (monkey business, if you my cruder meaning), Susan settles down to read the novel only to discover it is a disturbing, cruelly savage tale of violence, guilt, loss, and revenge. One which Susan interprets through the valueless absurdity of her current life and the fractured, self-reproachful emotional prism of her past with Edward. Within the novel's sad, heart-wrenching story of a family destroyed by a nighttime confrontation on a barren strip of West Texas Interstate, Susan perceives worrisome life parallels. The more she reads the more she comes to fear that the allusions and thinly-veiled similarities are an allegorical, perhaps threatening, indictment of her relationship with Edward, and her culpability in its dissolution. 
Laura Linney as Anne Sutton


“Susan, enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful. Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world.”


Nocturnal Animals, written and directed by Tom Ford (only his second film, his first being the sensitive and touching A Single Man) is one of my new modern classics: a contemporary film with the heart and soul of a film made in the '70s.
I don't write about many contemporary movies on this blog, but when I do (Closer, Blue Jasmine, Maps to the Stars, and Carnage), it's because they speak to me in a forceful, intimate voice reminiscent of my favorite films from the '60 and '70s. They tend to be difficult, character-driven scenarios dealing with pain of interpersonal conflict, self-confrontation, and alienation. They're movies that, for me, illuminate the vicissitudes of human experience in ways challenging and poignant. People often write to me, curious as to why I seem to be drawn to films of intense emotional conflict...usually between people not easily recognized as sympathetic.

I like to think it's because I'm essentially a happy person blessed with a modest, good life, and peace of mind. Happiness I attribute 100% to the lessons I've learned from the pain and difficult things I've endured in my life. While I wouldn't recommend wallowing in it, I personally don't think growth is possible without hardship, conflict, and grappling with things like sadness and tragedy. Since this is something I so respect in life, I guess it's a quality I gravitate to and applaud when it's addressed in film.
In the fictional story within the story, the characters in the novel look like Susan, Edward, and Susan's daughter with Hutton. As we're seeing the novel from Susan's perspective, Ford leaves it up to us to decide if the characters are genuinely written as such, or if the guilt-ridden Susan is projecting herself into the narrative.
Isla Fischer as Laura Hastings, Elle Bamber as India Hastings, & Gyllenhaal as Tony Hastings, who just so happens to look like Susan's ex-husband Edward Sheffield 


I was absolutely floored when I saw Nocturnal Animals. No, check that...Nocturnal Animals kicked me in the solar plexus. I was stunned. Like a good thriller should, its plot kept me in a near-constant state of agitation and anxiety; but the tension didn't emanate exclusively from the storyline(s) -
EVERYTHING about the film sparked my emotional antennae. From the costuming, sound design, decor, music (Abel Korzeniowski's score sent chills down my spine)...it's pure bliss. There is just so much going on and so much alert attention required, I was thoroughly worn out by the time the film was over. Yet, I couldn't wait to see it again. Watching it was a rich, exhilarating, equilibrium-losing, roller coaster experience.

As much as it can be said of a director with only two films under his $800 belt (the actual cost of a Tom Ford belt, folks) Nocturnal Animals features these director "trademarks" first seen in  A Single Man (2009)- Top: A brown vintage Mercedes Benz appears throughout Nocturnal Animals. It's first glimpsed delivering the dreaded manuscript. This is the only time the "real" Edward appears in the film. Center: Two characters in the film wear large frame eyeglasses similar to those worn by Colin Firth in Ford's debut film. Bottom: A Single Man featured a protracted, comical scene with a character seated on a toilet. In Nocturnal Animals, Ray's exposed and unorthodox facilities are more unsettling, and stand in perverse contrast to the opulent exposure of Susan's bathroom with the floor to ceiling window overlooking Los Angeles.


As a longtime L.A. resident, Nocturnal Animals gave me a wholly unexpected look at the all-too-familiar. For years I've worked as a personal trainer to many wealthy clients; the world depicted in Nocturnal Animals is familiar to me (from the perspective of an outsider) and I recognize the people. It's a world where people exist almost exclusively in interiors. They live in security-gated homes, are driven to their laminated offices in oversized vehicles, after which they go to their sterile gyms, and later dress to go to not-too-cloistered restaurants. Nocturnal Animal's depiction of Los Angles as a gray and blue landscape is pretty apt, for who sees the sun when you're always wearing dark glasses and looking out at the world through the tinted windows of your limousine?

The world Susan inhabits is a holed-up world that offers many benefits (the illusion of safety, insulation from self-examination); but it brings with it a unique set of problems. Problems many of the wealthy are conflicted about because, when all is said and done, the world sees them as having everything. But they know that they don't (nobody does), and that realization sometimes just eats them alive.
Zawe Ashton as Alex
Jena Malone as Sage
The extreme, high-style, costumes of designer Arianne Phillips play a 
significant role in establishing character and tone


THE SUBJECTIVE GAZE
I have a weakness for films that play with the idea of perception. The subjective gaze and the possibly unreliable narrator fascinate me because when a film leaves it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions based on the images presented, truly eye-opening things are revealed. Mostly about the viewer.
All three narratives in Nocturnal Animals are seen through Susan's gaze. Hers is the only reality we're exposed to. Whether it be her re-evaluation of her past, her sense of alienation in her current unhappy marriage and unfulfilling job, or her response to Edward's novel; we only see them from Susan's perspective.

The subjectivity angle introduces many interesting points. For example: Just because she feels guilty about her past, doesn't mean she has genuine cause. As a friend tells her, "You're awfully hard on yourself."  In many ways ALL the characters in Edward's novel convey some aspect of Susan's reality and sense of herself. Nocturnal Animals is at its most intriguing when, on repeat viewings, one realizes how many people, objects, and circumstances from her life Susan has projected onto the events in Edward's novel.
The Rich Fear the Poor/ The Poor Resent The Rich
The film's broad depiction of the redneck murderers (Karl Glusman as Lou) can be seen as Susan's amplification of a perceived the lack of safety in the world outside of the insulated, stainless steel gates of her interior decorated bunker 

My own subjective gaze plays significantly into why Nocturnal Animals hit me so hard. My experience of the film was significantly intensified by the fact that a month prior to seeing it, a writer friend who takes my dance class offered me the opportunity to read the pre-publication manuscript of her forthcoming novel. She told me, “I think you’ll like it. You know these people.”
My friend is, independent of our knowing one another, one of my favorite authors, anyway; her books and short story collections never failing to engage me in their exploration of the complexity of human relationships. A compelling novelist of many books on varied topics, she most recently published a series of books for the Young Adult market. It was the expectation of revisiting the lighthearted tone of those novels that stayed foremost in my mind as I settled down with her manuscript.

I read the entire novel in two days, and nothing of what I knew of the woman or her previous work prepared me for this book. It was unexpectedly violent, emotionally powerful, and very sad; I was quite shaken by it and reduced to a crumpled heap of red eyes and runny nose by the time I finished the last chapter. The book left me physically and emotionally drained. And I was so startled that this brutally tense, suspenseful book was the work of this rather sweet, gentle-natured soul I knew. 

Jump ahead to late December and I go to see Nocturnal Animals. Suffice it to say it was something of a wormholing experience. Here I am, a lifetime insomniac haken to the core by a book he's just read, watching a movie about another insomniac left shaken by the unexpected violence of an unpublished manuscript. A manuscript peopled with characters recognizable from her/my life. To make the already unsettling experience even weirder, my author friend is a redhead who would be a ringer for Amy Adams were she to iron out her hair into that same severe hairdo. As the film unfolded, I sat there with my jaw in my lap. Here I was watching a movie about the subjective experience of “reading” (literal, as in reading a book, figurative as in the way self-reflection is a form of “reading” one’s own past), while virtually interactively engaged in the very same behavior throughout.


“Sometimes maybe it's not such a good idea to change things quite so much.”


THEMES
Susan's remorse over the past, disaffection for the present, and existential disquietude arising from the metaphorical implications of her ex-husband's novel, form Nocturnal Animals' threefold narrative structure. The ways in which these stories interrelatemirror, comment upon, and reference one another—makes Nocturnal Animals an aesthetically satisfying, sometimes harrowing, journey into the psyche of a woman on a journey of self-confrontation. Themes emerge and relation dynamics are revealed, all requiring the kind of "active" and alert viewing experience I tend to associate exclusively with films from the late-'60s and '70s.

Green and Red/Natural Instincts and Violence
Art director Shane Valentino has said in interviews that the look of Nocturnal Animals was inspired in part by Antonioni's 1964 film Red Desert. In that film, a visual poem on alienation and the modern world, the colors green and red reach out to us from a bleak landscape of industrial gray. Signifying perhaps violent nature and the human impulse, Nocturnal Animals has Ray Marcus' green cowboy boots, his vintage Pontiac GTO, and Susan's "absolution dress" all sharing the same vivid green color.
As a symbol of nature, the color green and those associated with it come to signify the "nocturnal animals" populating the landscape of Susan's reality.
Red hair cascading on a red velvet sofa figure in two scenes of devastation and violence.
One emotional (Susan betrays her lack of faith in Edward), one physical (two vicious murders)
The vivid red of violence is represented by the bright crimson light that floods the scene in which Susan breaks up with Edward (top), the curtain in the shanty room where Tony has his final confrontation with Ray (center), and by the scarlet lipstick worn by Susan (but eventually and tellingly removed) when she heads off for her fateful rendezvous with Edward.


Blinded
The glare from the stainless steel gate of Susan's fortress-like home momentarily blinds her in an image mirrored in Edward's novel when the character of Tony is blinded by an assailant. A bone of contention in Susan and Edward's marriage was Susan's blind spot when it came to her suppressed creativity. Blinded by her desire for what she believed to be a secure and "realistic" life, Susan's background blinded her to recognizing Edward's strengths.

Spiritual Desolation
Nocturnal Animals is a tale of guilt, retribution, hoped-for redemption, and, most foreseeably, damnation. As characters abandon their humanity and as illusions of safety spiral into chaos, images of churches and crosses appear at increasingly regular intervals throughout the film. Top: A church stands alone in a barren landscape. Center: Edward/Tony wears a cross around his neck similar to that which is worn by his daughter in the novel, and by Susan. It's also the item he is clutching at the end of the novel. Bottom: Shaken by Edward's novel, Susan is frequently shown clutching the cross she wears around her neck as she reads. Raised a Catholic, Susan is guilt-ridden over having had an abortion without telling Edward, the violent death of a child in his novel feeling like a veiled indictment.

Caged Animals
Recurring motifs of barred, glass interiors emphasize not only the isolation of the characters, but reinforces the fear of being known or exposed (Susan remarks that her husband finds their declining fortunes "embarrassing." Likewise, she expresses feeling embarrassed after confiding in a friend). The remote interiors, with their bold framing lines and large glass panes, simultaneously resemble prisons, art installations, or cages in a human zoo. (Top: Susan's cold and foreboding home. Center: Texas interrogation room. Bottom: Yamashiro restaurant, Los Angeles.)

“Why did you give up on becoming an artist?”

STYLE
As if we hadn’t already been down this road and learned our lesson with Stanley Kubrick, Michael Powell, & Alfred Hitchcock, a great many critics seemed stalled on the dramatic visual style of Nocturnal Animals. The look chosen for this sparsely-populated, introspective thriller is visually striking to be sure, often breathtakingly so, but some can’t seem to get past the curated gloss to access the story and characters within. The above-listed directors were often taken to task for the stylization of their films, but now that they’re dead (which is the way it goes, I guess) everyone hails the artistic eloquence of their fluency in the visual language of cinema. 
The Los Angeles of Nocturnal Animals is no sunny vision of Paradise.
It's a cold, barely inhabited, slate blue environment of gray skies and incessant rain 
No one is depicted outdoors in Ford's vision of Los Angeles. Like a formaldehyde-encased art installation,
Susan occupies sterile interiors 

The narrative structure of Nocturnal Animals called upon Tom Ford & cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (in collaboration with the invaluable contributions of production designer Shane Valentino, art director Christopher Brown, and set decorator Meg Everist) to create three distinct worlds: 1) Susan’s present, 2) Susan’s past, 3) Susan’s interpretation of the fictional world in Edward’s novel. Three distinct worlds sharing a single common denominator...Susan’s very subjective reaction to each.  
In a story told almost entirely from the internal and external perspective of its main character, one of the more arresting aspects of Nocturnal Animals is not merely that these worlds have to be depicted in different ways, but that they have to be depicted in ways subtly conveying that they are the not-entirely-realistic impressions of a single individual.  
As imagined by Susan, the West Texas desert is a vast, arid, sunbaked wasteland,
nightmarishly beautiful and  ominously desolate

With Susan so often shown in states of isolation within empty, cavernous environments, silently grappling with self-reflection, self-evaluation, and, most painfully, self-recrimination; the visual style takes over the storytelling. And while the images convey details, both significant and small, about Susan and her life, their evocation and content is consistently influenced by the loss of emotional equilibrium she experiences as the film progresses. The impact her ex-husband's novel has on Susan creates a mounting sense of unease in the character, reflected in the film's darker palette, heightened sense of menace, and discomfiting cold images.
Susan's flashbacks are naturalistic and warm in tone. They include the film's rare moments of affectionate human contact. In these sequences, dramatic moments are often punctuated with extreme bursts of color: a red velvet sofa, the bright scarlet of a street light, the stark whiteness of a dress


As these three concurrently running narratives bleed in and out of one another, the strong visual style of the segments guide us (per Susan's perceptions) as the individuals and actions in each story come to mirror and comment upon one another; both literally (clean-shaven Edward, red-headed mother and daughter) and allegorically (Hutton Morrow/Ray Marcus as handsome instruments of emotional violence and destruction).

There will always be those who feel that stylization and technical gloss in a film is emotionally distancing, and that visual grit is somehow closer to truth. I'm not in that camp, however, so I can appreciate that the Architectural Digest sheen of some parts of Nocturnal Animals carry as much dramatic weight as those cinema vérité, too-close-for-comfort close-ups in the fictional Texas narrative. How a film is shot is part of a film's vocabulary, and as can happen with any language, the vocabulary a film chooses can be misunderstood.


ART
Susan Morrow owns a successful art gallery and serves on the board of a major museum. As an art dealer/curator/collector, Susan is haunted by her ex-husband's admonition that she studies art because she lacks the courage to be an artist herself. Though art plays a significant part in her life, over the years that seed of doubt planted by her husband's words (and her own sense of uncertainty about the path of life she's chosen) has given root to a cynical (healthy?) disdain for what passes for art in her world. Certainly her gallery's multimedia installation combining images of nude obese women and kitsch Americana.
Carlos
"I thought the work was incredibly strong. So perfect with this junk culture we live in."
Susan
"It is junk. Total junk."

Nocturnal Animals, a work of art itself, makes inspired use of artwork throughout; informing character and providing silent commentary on the film's themes.
Exquisite Pain
Artist Damien Hirst depicts the death of Saint Sebastian as a steer pierced by arrows. My partner reminded me that Saint Sebastian is the patron saint of those who desire a holy death. Something Susan, as a Catholic, might fear is lost to her
Jeff Koons' Balloon Dog sculpture graces the backyard of Susan & Hutton's grotesquely ginormous home. As indicated by the crane, the sculpture, along with several crated art items within the house, are slated to be sold by the financially beleaguered couple.
A jarring photograph by Richard Misrach (Desert Fire #153) appearing to depict a ritual killing in the desert is located in the entryway of Susan's home. Perhaps the source of the vision of Texas Susan imagines while reading Edward's manuscript?
Mooning
The blood-red wall of Susan's austere and decorously spartan office is adorned
 by John Currin's "Nude in a Convex Mirror."

“Nobody gets away with what you did. Nobody.”

THE ENDING
I feel it’s important to stress that this essay is my personal, subjective analysis of Nocturnal Animals, representative of how the film spoke to me. I intend neither an unequivocal “explanation” of the film and its themes, nor a wholesale endorsement encouraging the reader to run out and buy tickets, guaranteed of having the same experience. The mere fact that I have absolutely no complaints with the film stands as evidence of my lack of objectivity. I loved everything about this movie. From the brilliance of the performances to Ford's deft direction and stylistic touches, Nocturnal Animals is just my kind of cinema.
Because my experience was so rewarding,  I've enjoyed reading about how problematic so many people found the film's conclusion to be. It's an astonishingly powerful ending as far as I'm concerned, and the fact that I didn't anticipate it in the least—in spite of its thematic consistency—is what I loved about it. It's one of those endings that thirty people can watch and no two of them will be in exact accord as to what it all means. Some find it frustratingly vague; me, it takes me back to the heyday of '70s cinema when filmmakers were fine with making movies open to multiple interpretations, then leaving them to draw their own conclusions. 

I won't be offering an explanation to the ending here. But I will suggest that it is neither as devastating nor as positive as one might initially presume. Merely consider what I mentioned earlier, that, at least as far as what I've discovered to be true in my own life, growth and happiness is sometimes only possible through the lessons one learns through pain and loss. In which case, what may appear at first glance to be hopeless and devastating about the conclusion of Nocturnal Animals might in reality be the key to ultimately free a nocturnal animal from its cage.  

“You just can't walk from things all the time." 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

20 comments:

  1. I envy your way with words. You seem to express your intended points so concisely and with a strong undercurrent of emotion. You beautifully illustrate how much we bring to the movie we are watching. Reading of your circumstances when seeing Nocturnal Animals was fascinating. Bravo on this essay.

    That said, I am on the fence about Nocturnal Animals. I looked forward to it with anticipation, having loved A Single Man, but ended up disappointed. I didn't feel anything toward the movie, I was just watching it play out in front of me, totally detached. The fault lies with myself, as I tend to overindulge on reviews and other material concerning films I am really expecting (I live in Finland, and movies tend to get released so late here that there is an abundance of said material prior to my seeing movies). While my initial reaction to the film was a big old "meh", I found out that I couldn't stop thinking about it. It was on my mind constantly for days after watching it, so something in it definitely creeped into me. By now I'm sure I'll end up rewatching it, but I'm not ready for that yet.

    By far the best thing for me was Abel Korzeniowski's score. It gave me major goosebumps, and I've regularly revisited it since. Michael Shannon's performance was extremely effective as well. I'll never forget the look on his face in the scene where Tony realizes he (Shannon) is sick. I did also like Jake Gyllenhaal's performance, even though the tortured man trope is one that I'm tired of seeing. He and Amy Adams moved so effortlessly between the different time levels and stories in the movie. I've seen a lot of discussion of which 2016 Adams performance is better, this or Arrival. Having seen the latter film last week I found them shockingly similar (internalized, with the camera really up in her face) even though the movies are very different in matter, if not in style. However the one performance that didn't work for me was Aaron Taylor-Johnson's. I liked him as Vronsky in Anna Karenina, but for me he wasn't able to portray the needed menace here. I was more annoyed by him than creeped out.

    Whew. Sorry for rambling! You really brought out new things to consider once I get to my rewatch.

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    1. Hi Callie
      After all this time I had no idea you were corresponding from Finland! I guess I'm old enough to still be a little flabbergasted by the scope of the internet.
      I really loved hearing your thoughts on this film. Far from being rambling, I think you communicated very well how the film, while failing to ultimately live up to your expectations, had very good things about and things you found wanting.
      My experience of Tom Ford as director is opposite of yours. I only saw "A Single Man" after seeing "Nocturnal Animals." Both films are rather remarkable works, but "Animals" stood out as the most powerful of the two.

      I identify with what you say about the drawback of being oversaturated with info about a film before it gets released. I used to get so charged up about a forthcoming film. So much so that, after having the experience repeat itself one too many times, i came to realize that as I was watching the film, my own experience of it was being filtered through with all I'd read. It got so I wasn't experiencing the film so much as doing a checks and balances comparison tally of all the things I'd read. So now I keep myself in the dark about movies before I see them, only to gorge myself on Google after I've seen them.

      Your on-the-fence feelings about "Nocturnal Animals" are similar to the reaction my partner had to the movie. He thought it was fine but didn't have remotely the same reaction to it as I. Later, after we talked about it for an hour or so, I discovered that his insights about it were rather keen despite not having a real emotional connection with it.
      You sound as though you are very clear-eyed about the whys and wherefores regarding your feelings for the film, and I see your point in many instances. Especially regarding the performances. Although I loved them all, I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that I "get it" when you say Gyllenhaal's tortured man is a very familiar movie trope, and that Taylor-Johnson's roadside creep was more annoying than agonizing.

      But at least we are in accord on the splendid musical score. It really makes the film for me.
      As always, you are so kind in your compliments, and generous and thoughtful in sharing your feelings about a movie. As I so rarely write about new movies, it must be a novel experience to be reading something of mine that doesn't spark childhood memories for you! Thanks very much!

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  2. I enjoy your writing so much, thanks for the great read. The previews of this movie didn't grab me. It was not on my must see list but now I'll check it out. What I'd like to comment on is knowing to much about a movie before seeing it, as Callie mentioned, my experience being "Philomena". Watching it I was just checking off the boxes of yes, I saw this clip, yes, now this happens....it certainly lessened the impact. Of course now I'm doing the same thing by reading this but will STOP RIGHT NOW.

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    1. I really appreciate your kind words! It really is a bit of dilemma nowadays when it comes to the whole oversaturation thing made possible by the glut of internet pre-release info on a film. I know some people don’t mind knowing as much as they can about a movie, but for me it spoils things. But I guess I’m living proof that it IS possible to keep yourself in the dark. You mentioned that the previews didn't grab you...what gets me is that I somehow never even saw a trailer for the movie before I saw it. I just responded to the poster, something vague I’d heard about it being a thriller, and the presence of Amy Adams (who I principally knew from sunny roles in Enchanted and The Muppets). And to be honest, had I knew Tom Ford was behind it, I probably wouldn’t have seen it at all.
      But it was a wonderful surprise for me, and I hope you enjoy it. Maybe you’ll stop by and read this and tell us all what you think. And don’t worry about my being such a fan of the film; even if you hated it I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.
      Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. Fabulous essay! I'm so happy to have one of my favorite films validated. I seek drug-like effects from movies - it's why I go to them - and this one was a peak experience; a really good bag!

    I found the experience to be so intense that I had to keep talking myself down ("it's only a movie!").

    Alas, I'm sober, but I live for movies like this one.

    Regarding the ending, Jake G. had something to say about it on the Nerdist:
    http://nerdist.com/nerdist-podcast-jake-gyllenhaal/

    I'll let him speak for himself, but he saw Edward as giving Susan a true gift: seeing the value of living the life that you want. That's an interesting way to see an ending that I originally saw as bitter and nihilistic.

    Also, I'd like to propose that a second viewing of this harrowingly serious film might come across as high camp comedy. I mean - the hairstyles alone warrant a guffaw!! Auntie Mame meets Straw Dogs.

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    1. Hi, and thank you!
      your equating watching this film to a "drug-like" experience is very apt, and cuts to the heart of not only why a movie like this so appeals to me, but why '70s films (which cornered the market on drug-like effects for a time)have always been a favorite.
      Because everything isn't explained and laid out for you (the way the flashbacks and fictional scenes jump in and out of one another) it feels as though there is nothing passive about the viewing experience. Those who wish to follow the main story are given a satisfying psychological thriller, but if you alert yourself to the signals and clues, theres a whole lot of other stuff bubbling under the surface.
      I haven't read many pieces citing "Nocturnal Animals" as a favorite film, so i'm happy to hear you had a strong reaction to the film as well.
      And I must applaud you for being able to envision a potential camp sensibility applied to "Nocturnal Animals." it certainly happened to movies like "Fatal Attraction" and "Basic Instinct."
      I like your point because extreme expressions of style (visual style, costuming, hairdos, etc) are always so exciting for me because they are dangerous. They take the risk of being seen as camp or all surface, and sometimes only time can tell if a film can retain its original impact in spite of the overlay of gloss (I think David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" is a great example of a film that has developed a camp appeal, yet has never lost its edge).
      The museum and gallery scenes in "Nocturnal Animals" are like Hitchcock for me; funny and creepy in a dreamlike way.
      Thank you for sharing the link. I love that there are so many different ways people are interpreting the ending of the film. Thanks for investing the time in reading this lengthy post, and thanks for commenting so enthusiastically!

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  4. Good, perceptive essay on a challenging film. Thanks.

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    1. Much appreciated! My thanks to you for reading my post.

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  5. Hello Ken. Long time lurker here. My sweet spot for film is the late '60s and early '70s so your great blog is a treasure trove for me. Like yourself I generally find little interest in current cinema. Although I have become a bit of a fan boy for anything with Amy Adams so I was thrilled last fall when I learned she had two major movies on the way. She is really quite wonderful in "Arrival" and that movie really spoke to me because it avoids everything wrong with current science fiction films. So glad that she has received so much praise for that film and may very well receive an Academy Award nomination.

    Unfortunately I believe her recognition for "Arrival" has prevented proper assessment for her work in "Nocturnal Animals". Which is too bad because she gives a terrific internal performance that few modern day actresses could pull off.

    I purposely avoided any details about NA except for the trailer. I was immediately hooked by the score. People around me were grumbling from the very start, what with that shocking art gallery opening that seems to put so many people off of further emotional involvement in this film. You said everything that I felt about this movie so I will avoid parroting your words. The last film that hit me so hard was "In the Bedroom". There is nothing better to me than a film that drills deep into the human condition and the life decisions that we sometimes find ourselves making against our better judgment.

    I really appreciate your insights into cinema. Thank you for your efforts!

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    1. Hi Mr Pleasant (Valley)!
      Because I didn't devote much time to performances in my post, I'm very pleased you called attention to Amy Adams and what youso aptly describe as her deeply affecting "internal performance."
      I think it speaks well of the "let the audience discover for themselves" appeal of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS that it could so enthrall two fans of '60s/'70s cinema like us.
      I've read a lot about how uncomfortable people were made by the opening gallery sequence, and how, in many ways, it took some viewers quite a long time to even get into the film after that. It always amuses me (and I suppose it's telling) that I've yet to read anything about anyone being equally disturbed by the film's violence (I found that whole highway sequence more uncomfortable than the opening).

      Your attraction to films that drill "deep into the human condition and the life decisions that we sometimes find ourselves making against our better judgment" echoes my own, and I could have said it better. The drama of human conflict and the not-easy answer always engages me. I'd forgotten about "in the Bedroom" but that is a perfect film to reference in terms of eliciting a visceral response from me. A very powerful film.
      Because I'm not such a sci-fi fan, I'd written off "Arrival," but your enthusiasm for it has changed my mind. I will check it out.
      I'm sincerely flattered you've been reading my blog for a bit, and i thank you for taking the time to say hello and contribute your thoughts on what someone earlier perfectly described as a difficult film.
      But we fans of '60 and ''70s cinema know a thing or two about difficult movies, don't we? Good to hear from you!

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  6. Dear Ken: Hi! Thank you once again for a wonderful, thoughtful, challenging piece of writing. When I read of "Nocturnal Animals" last fall, my curiosity was piqued. You've confirmed in your essay that's it's probably the kind of film I would find too painful to sit through. But reading about it through your perceptions and insights is the next best thing to actually seeing it!

    I do believe that the cold sterility of the lives of "those who have everything" is a theme worth exploring in film. In our culture we are so obsessed with "having it all," watching reality programs about the wealthy, etc. that we don't think enough about the fact that obscene wealth does not necessarily equal happiness. I also was struck by Adams' mask-like make-up in stills from the movie--how that "look" is designed to conceal and distance as much as it is to "beautify." (I have seen people who sport that "glazed mask" make-up look, and they scare me!)

    I'm also impressed by your partner's knowledge of "Saint-ology" (not a word, I know). Despite the fact that I was Roman Catholic until 2003 and even spent four years in a seminary (which is a story for another time), I have no knowledge of who is the patron saint of what.

    My favorite film of the year-end was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from yours: "La La Land." Did you see it? I actually thought of you while watching because in a way, it seemed to be your story: an artistically ambitious person who settles in L.A. to live out a dream others might consider quixotic.

    I was impressed by the maturity of vision and grasp of life in "La La Land," especially when you consider the relative youth of the writer-director. I don't know the last time I've seen a contemporary movie that believed so deeply and confidently in romance, in the magic of finding someone who understands you and inspires what's best in you.

    "La La Land" also presented the most romantic vision of L.A. I can recall in any film--certainly quite different from how you describe it being depicted in "Animals." I haven't been to L.A. in years (the last time I was there, my mother and sister saw Andy Gibb getting out of an elevator, which tells you how long ago it was!), and I know "La La Land" displayed a magically stylized vision of the city. But it still makes me want to go someday!

    Thanks again, Ken! And I'm still looking forward to that book of essays on film you ARE going to write someday. :)


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    1. Hi David
      What terrific insight you have into the themes of a film I'm almost certain you really wouldn't want to experience. From things you've written about in the past, I glean that you have a keen understanding of the pitfalls to our culture's wealth fixation.
      When I post on the youth-centric social media like Tumblr, all I am confronted with are "inspirational" posts and quotes about "Success" & "making it"- all too closely associating financial wealth and notoriety as authentic means by which to measure the achievement of one's dreams and heart's desire.
      Our culture's adoration of wealth over virtue of character was made terrifying obvious by the recent election, when we, as a nation, proved that basic, human values of decency matter not an iota in the face of wealth and power.
      I think a brutal movie like "Nocturnal Animals" asks us to consider how easily we have come to embrace the savage, cruel, and vicious within us when it is glossy, pretty, and wealthy.

      As you point out, virtually all the trappings of wealth and style are masks. No human being NEEDS a house the size of Susan's, no one needs clothes that cost what most people make in a year. If we do, what does that say about us? As Ford suggests in the scenes that take place in bathrooms of wildly divergent degrees of comfort and convenience; no matter how well-turned out the bathroom, we all use it. We're essentially not that different. Wealth likes to assume a difference, but it comes with a price.

      Difficult movies often afford me with a great deal of food for thought, and, eventually, insight into human relations that improve my life. But sometimes that same insight is possible with profoundly moving and uplifting films, too. From the little I've seen of "La La Land" I suspect this may be the case. I haven't seen the film yet (and have been doing a great job of avoiding reading much about it, something that will grow increasing harder as Awards Season gears up) but plan to soon. It sounds like it might be up my alley for precisely the reasons you mentioned.

      I don't know you, of course, but the gentler sensibilities you've expressed in past comments (and between the lines of you terrific web short story) I think you perhaps share my partner's philosophy. He is a very good, principled, and decent person of admirable character. To feel empathy for and understanding of the human condition, he feels doesn't need to be bludgeoned over the head by depictions of cruelty in films. He feels that real life provides that in abundance, and one need merely look around. He likes and gravitates to movies which remind him that the paradox of existence lies in our having a base nature capable of soaring to the most incredible heights of unimagined kindness, art, and beauty. He gets in touch with his humanity through films of uplift, I find mine in films of conflict. The goals are the same, the paths merely different.
      As for his knowing about St. Sebastian, my partner was not raised religious, but he's an artist and studied art history...so I'm guessing that might have something to do with it. He's always picking up on things in the background of films that go right by me.

      (Four years in a seminary for you? Maybe you should be the one writing a book. What a story there!)

      Your description of "La La Land" is fairly intoxicating, and I look forward to discovering it. And what a great Los Angeles moment for your mom and sister!
      Every comments post from you feels like a conversation, David. Thank you! And I am indeed working on a book, I'm so thrilled to that I might have one person outside of my immediate family to sell it to when I'm done!
      Thanks, again!

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  7. OH, KEN!!! I'M SO GLAD YOU WATCHED THIS MOVIE!!!
    Isn't it AMAZING?
    I was excited when I read about it last year (Tom Ford+Amy Adams+Neo-Noir)but I wasn't expecting this level of amewsomeness. I loved your review and now I think the mvoie is even better than I tought! I didn't notice the "caged animals" motifs, and even tough I easily noticed the green and red colors everywhere I didn't know it meant natural instinct and violence. Fascinanting.
    About that Richard Misrach photograph (didn't know that, thank you) I tought it was an expression of Susan's eternal agony: that feeling that something is going to happen but it never does. Since a teenager she was idealistic, she believed something great would come and save her from that cynical and superficial world she was born into, she tought love would do it, tought Edward would do it, but it never happened. Just like the picture froze the moment before a shot, she was forever frozen before a big life revelation that never came. Poor Susan.

    I'm pretty sad this movie is not being talked about like Tom Ford previous effort because he really matured and solidified himself as one of the best of these times. Also, Amy Adams gave one of her best performances (Wish I had seen Arrival but it's distribution here was so poor I didn't have the chance) and it will probably be one of those sadly overlooked performances (I'm not really talking about the Oscars cause... Well, this is talk for another day). She was subtle and her eyes were sad in a way they were never pictured before. The whole cast by the way is amazing, and I tought Isla Fisher as Tony's wife was GENIUS casting, she looks so much like Amy, it's crazy.
    As for the ending, it really hit me. Jesus!I don't think Edward hated Susan and wanted revenge. He really knew her so much that when writting the book he separated Susan's nature in various characters, mostly the lovely wife (Susan representation) and the nocturnal animal that took his wife away from him (Susan's anxiety and eternal dissatisfaction). I think Edward gave her a gift: gave her PERCEPTION, and then moved on with his life. He turned a traumatic experience into a beautiful work, a liberating experience, and now it's up to Susan to do the same.

    Well I won't dare to say anything more cause your post is amazing and pretty much discusses everything that matters! Thank you! :)

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    1. Hello Joao Paulo
      Yes! I think this IS an amazing film! Your expressed enthusiasm for it is right in tune with my own.
      However, the various elements I highlight in my essay aren't really what they actually "are" in the film (like the colors, the symbols, etc) but merely what they represent to me.
      Like your reading something different into use of the Richard Misrach print (a superb take, I might add): neither of us is right in our interpretation, we're just sharing with each other our differing perspectives.
      I think the film is rich in content that way, and from what you've written, it appears "Nocturnal Animals" spoke to you in a way deeply emotional.

      I too think this film shows Ford's maturation as a filmmaker. It's a very complex balancing act he pulls of here. I saw "Arrival" just last night, and Amy Adams is pretty terrific in it. But her performance here is my favorite.
      I don't know Hollywood Award Season politics, but my sense is that in order not to have her competing with herself for Academy votes, there is a bigger push for "Arrival"- a film that costs twice as much to make as "Nocturnal Animals", plus, its themes are considerably more accessible and less problematic.
      Too bad. I hope Ford's movie doesn't get lost in the dust. Adams' sad eyes and keenly portrayed sense of self-recrimination are so much a part of what makes "Nocturnal Animals" work. She is tremendous, but the film is not easy.
      Thanks for sharing you insightful take on the film's conclusion. It's a very powerful ending that I can honestly say works with a number of interpretations. I even think that one can change one's feelings about different parts of the film after multiple viewings.
      Certain characters who on first viewing seem like heroes can look like villains on another, the guilty can be seen as the victim...it's a marvelous bit of writing and filmmaking on Ford's part.
      I got such a kick out of reading your observant thoughts on the film and getting a sense of your receptiveness to the story Ford is trying to tell. Thank you for commenting and sharing your enthusiasm for this film (and thanks for your always kind words)!
      Much appreciated!

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    2. Hey, Ken! Hope everything is fine!

      "However, the various elements I highlight in my essay aren't what they actually "are" in the film (...) but merely what they represent to me". I know! But you write it down so well and clear that it's just irresistible to think that's exactly what the director had in mind!
      I thinh the thriumph of this movie is the fact that it engages everyone in figuring out what is happening, and everybody comes with a different theory/interpretation that's coherent according to what the movie offered. And just like you said, this theory/interpretation changes overtime. This is amazing.

      And just like we expected, Nocturnal Animals got no Oscar love, wich is kind of sad. I hope it doesn't stop people from discovering it (here in Brazil there are a lot of people seeing it cause Jake Gylenhaal is really loved here), and hope it enspires more character-driven stories.

      On related news, I drove almost 3 hours last weekend just to get to the nearest theater screening Arrival and it was worth every second spent on the road listening to Roberta Flack. I'm a self-proclaimed Denis Villeneuve & Amy Adams fan so I just couldn't miss this for the world (I'm also a sci-fi lover). I loved it so much, SO MUCH that I left the screening singing Stephanie Mills "Better Than Ever" (even tough I'm sure I sounded more like Candice Bergen). It's now sharing the top place on my 2016 favorites list alongside The Witch and Nocturnal Animals.

      I think Amy Adams has that late-60s-whole-70s quality in her acting of fleshing her characters and taking them to another psichologicl level, something the screenplay is not giving us but is all in her. You don't see a lot of that anymore. Also, I had a lot of Liv Ullmann feelings with her expressions and mannerisms. Just amazing.
      I won't complain about Awards love, I'll just be thankful cause in 2016 I got a lot more than I asked for from the cinema.
      What a year!! :)

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    3. Hello Joao Paulo
      You're right, there is a bit of a redundancy in the way I keep stressing that I'm only offering my subjective opinion. I know you and others "get it" and I'm flattered if my observations can actually sound like authentic explanations of an artist's intent. I just get so carried away by a film i like, I think I can come across as rather emphatic.
      I've watched "Nocturnal Animals" again since our last correspondence and the film just keeps getting better.
      So pleased to hear you were so taken with "Arrival"! I especially like that you drove for 3 hours to see it. That's real film enthusiasm.
      It sounds as though your being a sci-fi fan and a fan of '70s style filmmaking made "Arrival" an especially rewarding experience. Your assessment of Amy Adams as an actress is one I concur with. She seems cut from the cloth of so many of my favorite actresses from the past.
      I recently saw "Jackie" and Natalie Portman's performance is another one that thawed my usual resistance to contemporary films. She was extraordinary.
      Now I have to check out "The Witch."
      And your attitude about Awards snubs and oversights is great (although I am so happy Michael Shannon's work in "Nocturnal Animals" got recognized): it only matters that 2016 produced a few films that rank amongst your all-time favorites. Lets hope 2017 holds more happy surprises!
      One happy surprise is you know the words to "Better Than Ever"!!! give that man a prize! Thanks, Joao Paulo!

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    4. Hi, Ken!
      I didn't see Jackie yet (it was released in my country just last weekend but it didn't come to my city - it's becoming harder and harder to have wide releases of non-blockbuster movies around here), but I'll check it out! Natalie is always fantastic.
      If I may recommend you a movie (maybe you already saw it): I'm really a fan of Isabelle Huppert acting in Elle. The movie is quite controversial and Verhoeven is at his most provocative in it, it's really a divisive film, but it has great aspects to it, mostly the character development!

      PS: "Better Than Ever" was, is and will always be an awesome feel-good-jam!

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    5. Hi Joao Paulo
      I have "Elle" on my list of must-see films. Isabelle Huppert is a fave and her films are almost always so challenging, if not downright bizarre. I'm intrigued by it.
      As for the song "Better Than Ever," they finally released the full Stephanie Mills version of it on some retrospective collection of hers, then on iTunes I found a version of it sung by The 5th Dimension. As good as they are, Candice Bergen's terrible vocalizing still rocks!
      Thanks for the recommendation!

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  8. Wow Ken, both your writing and observations just get sharper! (Didn't weigh in, but thought your essay on Carnal Knowledge was great -- full of the kind of insights that send me rushing back to rewatch a film, just to look at it afresh through somebody else's prism...)

    I was a (randomly chosen) SAG award nominator this year (a system, btw, which is totally broken -- nominators are saddled with such a ridiculous amount of product to judge that viewing everything is simply impossible, and the entire event becomes yet another popularity contest), and of all those eligible films I managed to cram in, Nocturnal Animals was the ONLY one that gut punched me.

    I'm not as articulate of thought as you are, because I was pretty much bewildered by just WHY I loved it as much as I did, but before it was halfway over I knew I had to see it again (and I look forward to watching it again, this time with your observations in my head).

    I understand those put off by the credit sequence -- a friend said it bothered her that the "excuse" for the title sequence was that it was part of one of Susan's installations, and that the subsequent story wasn't enough about her art to justify the opening, a complaint I think you've already neatly refuted. The film is very much about Susan as an artist.

    Others have said they found Edward's novel to be either excessively or gratuitously violent (and thereby too disturbing), but I found the remove of the fact that Susan was completely safe in her fortress merely reading the events (albeit projecting herself into them) kept the PHYSICAL violence from being overwhelming. It was the EMOTIONAL violence these characters were inflicting upon each other that made me wince and turn away more than once. (I wish I could have as visceral a response to every movie I saw!)

    And it's as unfair as being surprised when a "soap actor," for example, gives a great stage performance, but the thought that both this and A Single Man sprung from the creativity of a guy who previously made $800 belts (yes, I realize how reductive that is!) just makes the achievement all the more impressive, even as I acknowledge how unfair that reaction is...

    Thanks as always, Ken, for your enthusiasm and insights -- your work just gets more rewarding all the time...

    ~Jeff

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    1. Hi Jeff
      "I'm not as articulate of thought as you are..." Oh, really? I beg to differ. I think your comment on the violence in Edward's book is really brilliant. It is indeed the emotional violence that packs the wallop. Since the world we live in is precisely as "dangerous" and violent as Edward's book, I always find it challenging when movies try to convey it in ways reflective not so much of the acts themselves (which we can reject) but on their emotional impact - something we reject at the risk to our empathy.
      The rich rarely like to talk about it (because, understandably, they come off as cold and uncaring if they do) but they rely on their wealth to protect them from the pain of the real world. You see it in wealthy lawmakers and industrialists who knowingly contribute to polluting our environment and making our world less safe with the proliferation of drugs and easy-access firearms. They act as though their riches and their fortressed, gated homes are enough to keep danger at bay (like the character who says their absurd world of wealth and privilege is less painful than the real world). But a film like "Nocturnal Animals" dramatizes what I believe to be true: the less connected to the "real" world you become, the safer you are...the less human you become.

      I think for Tom Ford to actually inhabit this absurd world and yet be able to make a film of such keen insight is rather phenomenal. In an interview he said he wrote Susan as a somewhat autobiographical character (she's much different in the book) and the kind of crisis she undergoes something he himself grapples with.
      I don't think it's particularly unfair to be surprised that a fashion designer made "A Simple Man" and "Nocturnal Animals." Rude, perhaps, but not unfair. As I think I mentioned in an earlier comment, Tom Ford's involvement was 100% the reason I avoided seeing "A Simple Man" until last month, and my total cluelessness about his involvement in "Nocturnal Animals" is how i came to see it.

      I thank you very sincerely for your compliments regarding my writing. I feel I'm on a very enjoyable learning curve and each post is an opportunity to improve. So thank you.
      By the way, how terrific to be a SAG award nominator! I know so many films can be overwhelming, but what a fabulous endorsement that "Nocturnal Animals" stood out so much for you. It's nice knowing my visceral response to this wonderful film is shared by a few others.
      Thanks for contributing!

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