Sunday, January 29, 2017


The tragic back-to-back deaths of actress/author Carrie Fisher (December 27, 2016) and her mother, Classic Hollywood movie star Debbie Reynolds (December 28, 2016) offered a poignantly bittersweet, fittingly Hollywood-like end to one of my generation’s most conspicuous and compelling mother and daughter relationships.  
As though following a script co-written by centuries of accomplished mothers and the daughters who sought to emerge from under their shadow, the life trajectory that took Debbie and Carrie from the semi-autobiographical purge of Postcards from the Edge (1990) to the late-in-life mutual admiration evident in the moving documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher & Debbie Reynolds (2016), played out before my eyes like a real-life Fannie Hurst novel.
There is perhaps no relationship as fundamentally complex and formative and as that of parent and child. Nor, it would seem, one as inextricably fraught with the potential for misunderstanding, miscommunication, and the inadvertent infliction of crippling psychological wounds. 
When it comes to parenting, our culture, while not wholly forgiving, is inclined to make allowances for the unavailable father. Cast by patriarchy as the breadwinner/head of the household, a father’s physical and emotional absence in the home is rarely called into question if it’s in the service of carrying out his “duty” as husband and father: i.e., being the provider of food and shelter for his family. Hollywood is full of notoriously MIA dads (Henry Fonda, Ryan O’Neal, Bing Crosby, Carrie Fisher’s own absentee dad Eddie Fisher), but public scorn fell less along the lines of their not carrying their fair share of the emotional weight of parenting, but more along the lines of morality: the absentee workaholic father, while not ideal, is acceptable; censure is reserved for the philanderer father.
The same leniency has not always been accorded mothers.

Lacking much in our culture that supports, encourages, or even explains the reality of the working mother in terms that are not subtly reprimanding; women with ambitions outside the home are generally held to a higher, more critical standard than men. Women with families still face society’s two-option-only job default setting: motherhood = essential & important; mothers engaged in any professional endeavor beyond the scope of childrearing = nonessential bordering on self-indulgent.
(It's significant to note that this distinction is rooted in race and class, and rarely applied to women of color or the working-class poor.)

Paying little heed to the reasoning that a suppressed, unfulfilled individual of either sex is very likely to make for a pretty toxic parent, our culture rewards ambitious motherhood (e.g., that Octomom nutjob, the celebrity trend of serial adoption, reality-TV shows celebrating couples who crank kids out like sausages), while questioning the “maternal instincts” of any mother who has gone on to achieve a level of success in her chosen field of profession.
Consider the fact that successful men are rarely asked if they are afraid their work will lead to the neglect of their children. Family men are expected to have both professional and personal goals; meanwhile, working mothers are forgiven their professional ambitions only if they simultaneously assert (as often and as publicly as possible) that family comes first (Diana Ross, Angelina Jolie, Mia Farrow). 
Perhaps this sexist double-standard, unfair as it is persistent, is rooted in the not-wholly-unfounded presumptive tack that views the physical act of motherhood—carrying a baby to term—as the source of a bond unique between mother and child that is incomparable to that of father and child.
But whether its source is cultural, biological, or psychological; the love/hate, push/pull dynamics of mother-daughter relationships have always held a dramatic fascination. One of the most searingly honest and extraordinary explorations into the pain that mothers and daughters can inflict upon one another is Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata.  
Ingrid Bergman as Charlotte Andergast
Liv Ullmann as Eva
Halvar Bjork as Viktor
Lena Nyman as Helena

Autumn Sonata looks at the strained mother-daughter relationship of Charlotte (Bergman), a renowned concert pianist, and timid, soft-spoken Eva (Ullmann), a onetime journalist now living a quiet life in the country with her husband Viktor (Björk), a parish minister. Seven years have elapsed since Charlotte and Eva have seen one another, the time and travel demands of Charlotte’s career still a source of suppressed resentment for the 40-something Eva, who can't help but associate her mother’s success and devotion to her art with agonizing childhood memories of abandonment and neglect.

When Eva learns of the recent death of Leonardo, Charlotte’s lover of 18 years, she invites her mother for an extended visit. Eva’s motives for the invitation, not entirely clear even to herself, ostensibly harbors the hope that perhaps, out of grief or loneliness, her independent, self-reliant mother might, at last, be receptive to the kind of familial intimacy she has clearly spent a lifetime running away from.
Charlotte's arrival makes evident the elemental differences between the two women; the mother’s radiance and vivacity fairly fill the rooms of the tiny vicarage with a life force that can't help but eclipse Eva’s low-key timorousness. Daughter cannot hope to compete, so she retreats into herself. Mother is used to the spotlight, so she has little patience or understanding of anything that falls beyond its glare. Charlotte is pragmatic to Eva’s spiritual; self-centered to Eva’s empathetic; stylish to Eva’s almost studied frumpishness, and forward-gazing to Eva’s tendency to dwell upon and inhabit the past.
Eva surrounds herself with memories of her son Erik who died before his 4th birthday.
Charlotte, busy with her concerts, never met her grandson and was absent at his funeral

Whatever water-under-the-bridge good intentions that might have existed behind Eva’s invitation are scarcely given chance to take root before Eva springs the news to her mother that Helena (Lena Nyman), Eva’s younger, equally-neglected sister who's stricken with a debilitating degenerative disease, is no longer sequestered in a nursing home, but living with her and Viktor. News which doesn’t comfort Charlotte so much as unnerve her, setting in motion a chain of events confirming her suspicions that her designer luggage won't be the only baggage waiting to be unpacked during this fateful visit.

In one drunken night of accusations and confessions, a lifetime’s worth of stockpiled regrets, resentments, and recriminations are brought out into the open. But alas, exposure is not the same as clarity, and under the deluding guise of reconciliation, the child affixes blame, the parent justifies, and each challenges the other’s reality as subjective experience masking itself as truth.
In the end, there exists not merely a separation between Charlotte and Eva, but a chasm. Time has transformed parent and child into two adults. Two strangers who know each other all too well. Two individuals who share the same blood, yet are divided by a shared past each remembers differently.

Autumn Sonata’s alternate title could well be Face the Music, for running like an undercurrent beneath this searing chamber drama about the domineering force of love—the need for it, what happens when we don’t receive it, the lengths we go to reclaim it—is the subtheme of emotional accountability. As insightfully realized by Ingmar Bergman's screenplay and sensitively rendered by cinematographer Sven Nykvist's stunning images, Charlotte and Eva’s mother and child reunion is portrayed as a despairing day of reckoning. A chance to settle old scores and confront the ghosts of the past in the blind hope of embarking on a future.
"Just wait. We all eventually turn into our mothers."
                                        Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Autumn Sonata's stacked-deck conflict—neglected daughter confronts selfish mother—is thrown a remarkable curve by Ingmar Bergman's employment of a fluid narrative perspective. Inner monologues are heard; Viktor breaks the fourth wall, directly addressing us; flashbacks and intercut action contrast and contradicts the spoken word...each of which plays havoc with any attempt on our part to draw pat conclusions regarding the truth of what has transpired between these women.

As the past is resurrected and mother and daughter confront each other with painful disclosures, the role of victim and victimizer shifts in strange and unexpected ways. Amid appeals for forgiveness that are met with blame, and recollections of maltreatment countered with denials, each woman is faced with a troubling dilemma: can a person accept another's account of the past as being true if the very basis of that truth signifies a profound misunderstanding of one another?
One usually has to reach an advanced stage of maturity before realizing that our parents are not flawless beings and are simply human. Like us, they carry the wounds and vulnerabilities of their upbringing and try to do the best they can with the gifts and limitations nature accords.  If love is imperfect and the past can't be changed, is forgiveness the true sign of our having fully grown up?

There have been a great many films about mother and daughter relationships, most melodramatic, a great many more teetering towards over-sentimentalization. But no matter the form taken: The Joy Luck ClubGypsy, Terms of Endearment, Imitation of Life, September (the latter, Woody Allen, channeling this very film)—the drama follows a natural familial pattern. A pattern that concerns itself with matters of neglect vs. over-protectiveness, and the rebellion/estrangement struggle that inevitably leads to reconciliation. (Joan Crawford's Mildred Pierce being the noir exception to this rule...that Vida WAS a pretty hard article.)
I grew up the only boy among four sisters. Both of our parents worked, our mom, in particular, finding her stride in the '70s after attending EST workshops and landing several promotions in her career working in government in San Francisco. I had my own parental issues with being a latchkey kid at the time (I retreated into movies), but my mom's fought-for and well-earned burst of feminist self-actualization during my high school years were particularly hard on my sisters. Perhaps that's why the unsentimentalized truth of Autumn Sonata resonates so strongly with me. It gets the emotions right from both sides of the argument, offering the bracing insight that some battles end with no victors on either side.
Much in the way that our parents become more recognizably human to us as we grow older, Autumn Sonata is a film that plays very differently to me now than it did back in 1978. At age 21, I wholly identified with Ullmann's character's point of view, today I can't help but appreciate the struggles of Ingrid Bergman's character as well. Both women are more alike than they'd like to admit, and as each is a product of a home where maternal love and affection were largely absent, I find that there's something hopeful (if not exactly happy) in the way each has coped. Charlotte, though indeed selfish and remote, has channeled her emotions into her art. Eva, while prone to dwelling on the past, has actually learned how to love (others, if not herself, just yet); and in caring for her disabled sister and late son, seems intent on not repeating her mother's mistakes.

Autumn Sonata is a film chock full of trivia tidbits. It marks not only Ingrid Bergman’s last feature film (one for which she was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe) but her only teaming with sound-alike countryman Ingmar Bergman. Bios note that it is also Ingrid’s first Swedish-language film in 11 years; a nifty coincidental turnabout being that she portrayed a pianist in her first major Swedish film (Intermezzo -1936) and plays one again in her final film.
Autumn Sonata marks the 9th of 10 films Liv Ullmann appeared in for Bergman, and their daughter Linn was cast to portray Eva as a child. By all accounts, when it comes to behind-the-scenes collaboration, the two Bergmans didn’t have an easy go of it at first. Ingrid’s outspokenness and studio-trained acting style were quite the departure from the usual “the genius is in” passive compliance from his familiar crew. But whatever difficulties went into the creation of Autumn Sonata prove more than worth the trouble, for Bergman and Ullmann give exceptionally raw performances.
Favorite Scene: Eva listening to Charlotte play Chopin's Prelude No. 2 in A Minor realizes that her mother's art has been the recipient of all the love and attention absent from her childhood 

A common passage in most every tell-all memoir by a celebrity offspring is that moment when the child grasps the extent to which their parent is devoted to their work. It's usually when the child sees the parent give forth with a sensitivity and emotional availability not present in the household. While admiring their artistry, creativity, and passion, the child nevertheless realizes they can never compete and will always come in second (even if marginally) to that magical "something" that gives their parent's life purpose.

Ullmann, coming as no surprise, is first-rate throughout and comes across very much at home in Bergman’s world of exposed faces and bared souls. At once heartbreakingly sympathetic, the next moment bitterly unfair, her Eva feels all the more real and affecting because her pain occasionally crosses the boundaries of reason. Ullmann’s is not an intellectual performance, but one deeply realized and felt.
But it's Ingrid Bergman who brings something altogether fresh to Ingmar Bergman's usual solemn rumination on the puzzle that is the human experience. Always a charismatic and compelling presence onscreen, here Ingrid Bergman plumbs depths I've never seen in her before. Her Charlotte is precisely the charmer she needs to be, the cold narcissist her daughter accuses of being, and the creative artist possible only in people accustomed to living with demons.
Ingrid Bergman is flawlessly unsympathetic and achingly vulnerable. I think it's my favorite of all of her screen performances.

A significant part of Autumn Sonata’s impact is the core of emotional verisimilitude running through its characters, dialogue, conflicts, and performances. Textured and nuanced in its ability to convey the heated, paradoxical perspectives of mother and daughter, at times the film feels so real it’s as though the words were taken from the transcripts of a documentary or group therapy session.
This core of truth I speak of is (at least for me) attributable to the incontestable thread of semi-autobiography Autumn Sonata is fused with by way of its cast and creator. At various times in their lives Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, and Ingmar Bergman have each been either the neglected child or the absent parent. The childhoods of both Ingrid and Liv were marred by the deaths of parents when they were very young, while Ingmar spoke often about his sickly youth and abusive father.
As adults, all three had bouts of being less-than-ideal parents. Ingrid’s well-documented affairs and marriages and 5-year estrangement from first daughter, Pia; Ullmann’s self-professed immersion in her work after the out-of-wedlock birth of her daughter with Bergman; and Bergman—5 times married, 9 children from multiple partners—whose work always came first, was perhaps the epitome of the absentee father.
Charlotte's abandoned husband Josef (Erland Josephson) consoles the adolescent Eva

Back in the '90s, I worked as the personal trainer for the daughters of three different celebrities. One was the struggling actress daughter of an Academy Award-nominated actress from Hollywood's Golden Era. Their relationship was almost identical to that depicted in Postcards from the Edge; strained at best, competitive nonstop. The second was the daughter of a famous Hollywood couple, since divorced. To hear her tell it, her relationship with her mother improved in direct proportion to the ratio of the decline of her mother's career (i.e., her mother had more time for her when her mother suddenly found herself with more time).
The third client, while admitting to being the progeny of "Two raging narcissists" and forever in their shadow, nevertheless found happiness through therapy. Lots of it, from what I understand, but it seemed to be just the trick for enabling her to let go of the unchangeable past and forge a loving relationship with her parents in the here and now.

Testament to Autumn Sonata's honesty and unblinking gaze into the human condition is how, seeing the film again after many years, I still recognize these women. I've met them before in the countless mothers and daughters I've come across in my life. I also recognize myself, I recognize my sisters, and I recognize my own mother.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2017

Monday, January 9, 2017


Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review. 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, they're dwellings, 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 in which she occupies space without actually inhabiting it and dresses in a cold, off-putting style best described as "hostile chic"; we can tell that Susan is at some kind of a crossroads. Often caught in moments of lost-in-thought stillness, Susan exhibits all the traits of suffering the kind of well-upholstered midlife crisis that comes after career and creature comforts are secured and the “Am I happy?” dilemma begins to rear 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.”

Jane Gyllenhaal as Edward Sheffield/Tony Hastings

Into this environment of expensive 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. (Side note - I mourn that future generations will never 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 sets off plenty of additional existential alarms. However, 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 Hutton goes away for a business meeting (monkey business, if you get my cruder meaning), Susan settles down to read her ex-husband's 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 real-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 often write about contemporary films, but when I do (Closer, Blue Jasmine, Maps to the Stars, and Carnage), it's when 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 the 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 will write to me, curious as to why I'm drawn to films of intense emotional conflicts...often between complicated characters not exactly sympathetic.

I like to think it's because I'm essentially a happy person blessed with a modest, good life, and peace of mind. Peace of mind I attribute to the lessons learned from having endured difficult times and painful events. I'm no advocate for hardship, as such, but speaking subjectively, none of the happiness I value in my life would have been possible were not for the time spent grappling with those moments of pain and sadness. Since this is something I respect in life, it seems to be a quality I gravitate to and applaud when I see it addressed in film.

The characters in Edward's novel are Tony & Laura Hastings (Gyllenhaal and Isla Fischer) and their daughter India (Elle Bamber).
The characters in Edward's novel look like Edward and Susan, and the daughter Susan had with Hutton. The film allows us to see the book from Susan's perspective, leaving the viewer to decide if the characters are written as such, or if the guilt-ridden Susan is projecting herself into the narrative.

I was absolutely floored when I saw Nocturnal Animals. No, check that...Nocturnal Animals was a kick 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)'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 its crudeness stands in perverse contrast to a companion scene showing us Susan's equally-exposed bathroom with the floor to ceiling window overlooking Los Angeles.

As a longtime L.A. resident, Nocturnal Animals provided me with a wholly unique and unexpected look at the all-too-familiar. For years I've worked in the city as a personal trainer to many wealthy clients; thus, the world depicted in Nocturnal Animals is familiar to me (from the perspective of an outsider) and I recognize its 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 a 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 due to the fact that the curious phenomenon of "having everything" very seldom, if ever, actually feels like it. Nobody has everything. That's a fact. But to have SO much and still not have everything seems to eat the rich alive.
Zawe Ashton as Alex
Jena Malone as Sage
The extreme, high-style fashion designs by Arianne Phillips play a significant role in establishing a sense of other-worldliness in Susan's surroundings and personal associations.

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 (the present, the past, and the fictional) 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; our only sense of their reality is based upon what we come to learn about Susan.
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, shaken 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.”

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 relationship 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.

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 moneyed 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?”

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 and 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 the three distinct worlds representing Susan's reality. 
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.
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.
"I thought the work was incredibly strong. So perfect with this junk culture we live in."
"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?
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.”

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 viewers 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 freeing a particular nocturnal animal from her many cages.  

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

Copyright © Ken Anderson