Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Childish Gambino, James Franco, take note; the Renaissance man 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, it 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 egos get massively stroked. 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 directing chops are definitely on show as the film brims with cinematic flair, with none proving more pronounced than the Lynchian variety Ford employs 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.

Ford abandons deliberate theatrics in favor of a conventional but visually dazzling product. The main hook in the film this time is grafting a story on top of the present narrative (it could very well be other way around). Ford skillfully threads 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 shock at the disturbing content and her creeping discontent at her lot in life triggering her long forgotten memories as the novel’s events unfurl.

Since brevity demands it, the novel is also titled Nocturnal Animals, Edward’s nickname for her. Tony Hastings, the protagonist, 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 unmistakably 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—the blast from the past—at times can elicit bouts of longing, regrets and nagging what-ifs. One can look to or in BLUE VALENTINE (Derek Cianfrance) and LOVE (Gaspar Noe) as recent examples of the dormant, often, rueful yearnings post-breakup, except in both movies, past and present are obvious. In NOCTURNAL ANIMALS the present timeline (Susan’s) takes a backseat to both memory and fantasy especially in dramatic intensity and urgency. In turn, her present evokes a dreamy aura untethered from reality, in spite of real life butting in in the shape of a philandering husband and a struggling art studio; her daily routine outside the fictional confines of the novel exists only as a reminder of the present. A somewhat novel alternative is when reality and imagination intersect and create a intertextual insight into how we perceive visual adaptations of written fiction. Why else is Hastings shown as Edward/Gyllenhaal, with daughter and wife resembling Susan other than her own projections and substitutions?

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