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?


Nicolas Winding Refn occupies a unique place among active filmmakers but also a precarious one. Revered without being critic-proof, his films decidedly garner polarizing sentiments. As a whole his latest batch forms a loose trilogy lukewarm in its unmistakable predictability, while individually each film is phenomenal, posing a conundrum for anyone outside of his following of loyalists to introduce a Refn film to the uninitiated. His latest, The Neon Demon, is the natural progression of recent esthetic inclinations. If Drive was his most ready for mainstream consumption, its follow-up flirted too closely with experimentation. And The Neon Demon blends signature violence and customary compositions with a fully realized vision of that fine balance at last.

Jesse (Elle Fanning), by eventual indication, is the embodiment of an ideal sorely missing in her chosen profession. In having her hail from Georgia Refn conceives her as the all-American archetype of the girl-next-door variety. Until she moves to LA to pursue modeling against all odds, storming past a roomful of would-bes and aspirants with figures more in line with type than hers is, but I suspect this dissonance is neither intentional nor indicative of a flaw. More a casting preference more of which will pose other dilemmas for personal, objective reasons. Like Keanu Reeves in a brief, miscast role as the motel manager she’s staying in. He pervs on her and tries to turn her boyfriend on the jail bait next door all along proving a tonal distraction to contend with on top of the surrealist puzzle that is the film. That his sidekick is your run-of-the-mill hick is suggestion of Refn wanting his man all along results be damned considering Christina Hendricks also returns to Refn World except this time for one meager scene. The idea is that hers is a casting choice so acerbic in what it tells knowing her physique is a far cry from the gilded waifs she’s tasked with churning out as an agent.

The film mixes conventional storytelling with the cerebral and when viewed from afar the result is jarring despite an engaging presentation and the foreknowledge that Refn will eventually dish out the brutal and outrageous. At first Jesse is mostly a cipher, a non-factor, and mostly Refn’s primary attack on the body-image machine and authorities on glam. She moves up, gets signed to an agency and turns yet more heads as she accrues enemies and upgrades from a no-name photographer/boyfriend (Karl Glusman) to potential casting couch predators. The photo-shoots (the film begins with a grotesquely themed portfolio-building that shows her dead from a sliced throat) evolve to elaborate deification in one scene. Naturally this gets to her head as soon she succumbs to delusions and speaks in hypnagogic platitudes to none other than herself. As if self-soothing or possessed.

One episode puts the film in another gear when she swaps the motel for her friend Ruby’s (Jena Malone), who conceals from her that she is housesitting in Hollywood. Perhaps it is not, but the empty pool looks a great deal like a precursor from Sunset Boulevard and reeks of the same rank and decay of a former screen goddess. The film soars and never looks back but regrettably you’d wish more of its dreamscape sensibilities were featured to balance a weak script. “Being pretty pays,” at one point Jesse proclaims but is at once disappointed to discover the garish mansion she is now in is not personal property and there is an abstraction to the revelations that no one is shown at home, anchored to a permanent address. That underneath everyone is uprooted and unhinged pending their corresponding breakthrough. Or breaking point.

Beforehand cinephiles online wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to reveal the visual kinship between Suspiria and The Neon Demon. Usually this is expressed by transposing similar stills or God forbid gifs from the two films. Douche move, meme-feigning shit, in short. Fans of Giallo are in for disappointment however since the homages to Surpiria are few and easy to miss if not consciously reached for. It is not a like-for-like reporpusing of a classic nor is the influence blatant but legacies and visual triggers are such that they closely work in tandem. Which I suppose earns the film credibility as it succeeds as a sensory delight. Again, Refn employs a periodic shift between verbal exposition and pantomimed expression but he also devotes an inordinate amount of time with the movers and shakers of the scene when the intimate mise en scene proved plenty effective on its own.


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