Whenever viewers lament verbal exposition as too on the nose, overly oratory, or detrimental to pacing you’re easily reminded of the alternative; the type which develops through action. Though you’d be wiser than to accept as better exposition anything merely meeting the requirement of being “other.” This isn’t to accuse Lanthimos of deliberate opacity, simply a moment to ponder the diciest of two necessary propositions, though the film is the latest in a line of several on hermetic existence equally adamant in refusing to acknowledge motives. Most of the film’s pertinent junctions arrive with the assured realization of the insidious intentions behind the bizarre ways of the family at the center of Dogtooth.
As the film is reluctant to feed its audience the requisite information in one go, those of the patience and disposition to trust the process will reserve judgment for the end and be rewarded to a degree. Lanthimos shows none of his cards prematurely. Beginning with a tape recording of what sounds like a precursory brainwashing exercise before a hypnosis program it can feel somewhat daunting to feel out his early drift. I stopped watching next figuring the words would come in later when I couldn’t keep up with their new meanings. On the second attempt it was easier to let go of biases and allow myself to soak in the proceedings. This wacko family lives in isolation and has crafted an alternate reality as a result, and save for the working father, the members get by on routines that border on the ritualistic with reward and punishment to show for their behavioral progress.
The entire cast is unnamed save for a prostitute-for-hire who works the gate at a factory the father is employed in. She comes in to provide release for the son’s periodic blue balls but is allowed free reign to interact with the two younger daughters. She barters accouterments for cunnilingus with and from the elder daughter—a notion the son fails to recognize as part and parcel of foreplay—after it is established that stationary items won’t suffice for Christina. The dry, monotone delivery of everyone, especially the younger characters, along with their juvenile grasp of taste and boundaries is portrayed in a pale, sunwashed palette with yellowish hues and lots of negative space filmed with a fixed vantage point. That plus an almost cold open and the absence of a soundtrack create an immersive but muted atmosphere conducive for rubbernecking; you can’t look away. And you can’t unsee the shock and extremes that are sure to follow. More impressive is how the lowkey mood allows the breaking point to arrive without warning. Yes, the children do act out but there aren’t signs to ascribe their rebellion from curiosity and idleness to one long summer or a lifetime of pent up impulses.
Whether Dogtooth functions as an allegoical attack on censorship, parenthood or, altogether, as a portrait of perversion viewed from a fly-on-the-wall perspective would ultimately amount to little in terms of impact. The film is not wholeheartedly cryptic although to decode every lexical substitute might as well come with the access to its production notes. The same applies with the symbolism behind cats and airplanes for example. Luckily this was never the intention and there is enough intrigue to keep you keyed in on something else. The in-group setting chosen for the film recalls the one in THE SEVENTH CONTINENT, or the communities in Shyamalan’s THE VILLAGE and most recently PARTISAN, making it an enduring trope with the results as varied as the methods employed. In terms of temperament, Haneke is as accurate an approximation as any.
Childish Gambino. James Franco. Take note. The name you want to emulate is Tom Ford. And I suppose for it to fly under the radar for one cinephile is one thing. For one married to a brand-savvy consumer of all things constitutes a double dosage of shame. Ah, had to have been his fragrance or cosmetics line now that I remember. But for the leap to occur from the runway to the red carpet is duly curious—just not enough to sound my metal detectors since, on the one hand, I’d never heard of his debut, I haven’t the slightest intention of playing catch-up, much less keep an earmark on any future work. On the other hand the film comes on the heels of Nicholas Winding Refn’s foray into similar territory: THE NEON DEMON.
Tonally, a gulf of contrast exists between the two but elsewhere the sensibilities are similarly accounted for. The art world and fashion are hollow domains where the shallow and vain roam. But whatever your background, it helps to have big-name draws headlining your vanity project like a Jake Gyllenhaal or one Amy Adams, who, notwithstanding etymology, is the real anchor of the film and a damn fine one too. An A-Lister goes some way to secure some credibility to backers and studio heads, yes, but there still is the end result to conted with. And crafting chops are definitely on show as the film brims with cinematic flair, with none proving as pronounced than the Lynchian variety employed in the opening credits. Think ERASERHEAD’s fever dream and THE ELEPHANT MAN’s voyeurism where the ghastly Radiator woman appears on a cabaret stage but this time with a selection of obese women exhibited in place of the titular elephant man.
For better or worse, Ford abandons such deliberate theatrics in favor of a conventional-looking film. The main hook in the film this time is grafting a story on top of the present narrative. Ford skillfully weaves a patch of narrative textiles without the faintest illusion of juggling multiple timelines. As Susan (Adams) reads a book dedicated to her by an ex-husband of some twenty years, the novel is serialized in its own flashback as she recalls past events with the instigator, Edward (Gyllenhaal). Intercut with the dramatized novel and the flashbacks is her current state of mind, teetering between her shock at the disturbing content of the book and creeping discontent at her lot in life which comes to realization conveniently as the novel’s events unfurl.
Since brevity demands it, the book is also titled Nocturnal Animals and the protagonist’s name is Tony Hastings. Hastings is off-roaded by local goons in an unnamed Texan backcountry and the encounter escalates into the double-murder of both his wife and teen daughter. Unsurprisingly Hastings is also played by Gyllenhaal and his wife and daughter are the decidedly redheaded Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber. Some time later with the tireless efforts of an ailing sherif Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) enough leads crop up in the investigation.
Nostalgia as a blast from the past naturally leads to servings of longing and nagging what-ifs. One can not help but look to Derek Cianfrance or Gaspar Noe in BLUE VALENTINE and LOVE as recent examples of the dormant but staying power of regret and yearning. Except in both cases the past and present are squarely divided. In NOCTURNAL ANIMALS the present timeline (Susan’s) takes a back seat to both past and fiction at least in intensity and immediacy. In turn the present invokes a dreamlike aura, in spite of life butting in in the shape of a philandering husband and a struggling art studio; her daily routine outside the artifical framework of the book is fleshed out as a reminder of what is factual. A somewhat novel alternative is when reality and imagination intersect creating a intertextual insight into, as an example, how we perceive adaptations of books into films. Why else is Hastings played by Gyllenhaal, with daughter and wife so closely resembling Susan other than her own projections and subjectivity?