Nocturnal Animals (2016)

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?