Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 16, 2016

Critics Corner: ‘Nocturnal Animals’ chilling but lacks heart

When writing about a film, I often focus on the director. Although the making of a movie is a collaborative process, the director is at the helm of the project and the one responsible for its success or failure.

For me, writing about a film without discussing the director would be like reviewing a Van Gough without mentioning the artist. There would be no context for my opinions.

So, as I review “Nocturnal Animals,” a stylish psychological thriller, I will center my thoughts on director Tom Ford, a fashion designer who’s decided to make movies. “Nocturnal Animals” is his second after “A Single Man” in 2009.

Judging by the final product, Ford used a broad palette of influences when he put brush to canvas. There are shades of David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick and the Cohen brothers, for starters.

Other critics have detected hints of Hitchcock, which I didn’t catch. Since art is fiercely subjective, perhaps they saw something I didn’t. Or maybe they were wrong.

“Nocturnal Animals” opens with an eye-popping display of sagging, naked flesh dancing against a patriotic backdrop. I imagined Lynch smiling as he watched it. The images are skewed just south of normal, which is his calling card.

The scene depicts the latest opening for art gallery owner Susan Morrow, played with statuesque discipline by Amy Adams (“The Arrival”). Although Adams has a wonderfully expressive face, she deadpans the role of Susan, who lacks a soul.

Shades of Kubrick appear in Susan’s obsessively styled home, which seems built out of right angles and compulsive minimalism. Her house is immaculate but, like her, has no substance.

The same can be said of Susan’s husband, whom we barely meet before he mumbles something about work and jets off to have an affair.

Even the camerawork in these scenes mimics Kubrick, especially the way Ford tracks sideways across rooms.

At this point, I wondered if Ford was paying homage to his favorite filmmakers or simply borrowing their methods. Then he turned the film on its head and went full-on Cohen.

The shift in tone comes as Susan receives a pre-release copy of a novel written by her estranged ex-husband, Edward Sheffield, and visualizes the story as she reads it.

This story-within-a-story follows Tony Hastings and his wife and daughter on a fateful road trip through West Texas. While driving after dark beyond the range of a cell phone tower, they wind up in an altercation with three local troublemakers.

When Tony becomes separated from his family, Detective Bobby Andes enters the picture, looking like he’s spent too much time in the desert without a drink of water. He’s the kind of gumshoe who believes the boundaries of the law should be elastic, making him the right man for a missing persons job in West Texas.

The tone of these scenes reminds me of Joel and Ethan Cohen’s “Blood Simple” and “Fargo.” Tony and his family are regular people thrust into a terrifying and desperate situation and the violence that grows out of it is best described as unhinged.

Over time, the real and fictional worlds begin to cross paths. Ford uses subtle cues at first, such as a sound effect bleeding from one shot into the next during a transition between reality and fiction.

Eventually, the bridges between worlds become more frequent and pronounced. A red couch provides the most glaring link. Bodies posed in a similar manner blend the stories even further.

This merging of reality and fiction occurs as Susan delves deeper into the story, suggesting she’s identifying more and more with elements within it.

Susan also begins to think back on her break-up with Edward, which forces her to see a side of herself long buried beneath an excess of blue eye shadow and an upper crust lifestyle.

While viewing “Nocturnal Animals,” I realized I could watch Michael Shannon, who plays the detective, eat a plateful of hash browns and be entertained. Shannon has the kind of persona that paints a movie a unique color. Even though Bobby is just an old salt with a dislike of police procedure, Shannon elevates the character and each scene in which he appears.

The same can be said of Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays both Edward and Tony. His work is tremendously expressive and provides both an emotional core for the audience to latch onto and a counterpoint to the impassive Susan.

Although Susan places Adams in a box, Adams does wonderful work within her allotted space.

I admire other aspects of “Nocturnal Animals.” I thought the casting of Isla Fisher as Laura Hastings, Tony’s wife, was clever. Hastings looks a lot like Adams, which tells us that Susan injects herself in Tony’s story from the beginning.

I also liked some of the dialog. Lines like “Our world is a lot less painful than the real world,” which a wealthy friend says in consolation to Susan, and “I feel ungrateful to not be happy,” are on point for the film’s self-obsessed central character.

That said, I don’t know how much of the dialog can be credited to Ford, who wrote the screenplay, and his source material: the 1993 novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright.

I do know I wasn’t completely sold on Ford’s direction. He did good work with the altercation I mentioned earlier. I could feel the horror of random violence suddenly rearing its head on a desert road and the growing anxiety of Tony and his family as the situation spirals out of control.

I also believe Ford clearly communicates the themes of guilt and regret that bubble out of the story.

But as Ford was busy imitating directors who have done strong work in the neo-noir genre, he forgot to put his own stamp on the movie. Instead, like a film student who’s learning through imitation, he created a soulless pastiche that falls short of the movies he tried to imitate.

2.5 stars