Skip to main content

Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world.

Nocturnal Animals
(2016)

(SPOILERS) I’d heard Marmite things about Tom Ford’s sophomore effort (I’ve yet to catch his debut), but they were enough to make me mildly intrigued. Unfortunately, I ended up veering towards the “I hate” polarity. Nocturnal Animals is as immaculately shot as you’d expect from a fashion designer with a meticulously unbuttoned shirt, but its self-conscious structure – almost that of a poseur –  never becomes fluid in Ford’s liberal adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel, such that even its significantly stronger aspect – the film within the film (or novel within the film) – is diminished by the dour stodge that surrounds it.


I read a comment suggesting Nocturnal Animals’ “framing” material was like The Neon Demon if it had nothing remotely interesting going on beneath its shiny surface. There’s definitely something to that. Ford has sketched a portrait of shallow, superficial super-rich dining out on their ever-so-empty artistic elitism (the picture kicks off with an exhibit of gyrating obese nude women, as if someone had dragged Peter Greenaway down the discotheque and then summarily locked him in an art gallery with a selection of variable frame rates).


 Amy Adams (she’s okay; I mean she’s never not good, but she has nowt to chew on here) is Susan Morrow, the gallery owner who has eschewed any personal creative aspirations and finished it with her sensitive/weak – genuinely creative – first husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) after his failed to come to anything and she met bland superstud Hutton (Armie Hammer). But, when she receives a manuscript from Edward, dedicated to her, she discovers a tale she can’t put down, and as apparently distinctive as the characters and setting are, she recognises within a hard-hitting allegory for her own severed relationship.


It sounds like there’s a decent kernel here, but there’s nothing about Susan’s story to engage the viewer; it’s impossible to feel much empathy for her plight, her (new) hubby having an affair while her frivolous friends (Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough, of whom we see far too little) advise her “Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world” as she opines “Do you ever feel your life has turned into something you never intended?” We’re treated – asked to endure, more like – flashbacks to her relationship with Edward that entirely fail to make either more interesting or reinforce the idea that there was something to invest in here in the first place.


So instead, the raw meat of the movie derives from Edward’s novel, Nocturnal Animals, Ford seguing back and forth from in the most indelicate manner. It’s a pretty big clue anyway that Susan reads the novel’s protagonist Tony Hastings with Edward in mind (so he’s also played by Gyllenhaal), a man who loses his wife and daughter to a trio of murderous redneck rapists on a deserted Texas road. What befalls them both is as crudely devised as any manipulative shocker – the build-up to events is horribly, expertly sustained – so Tony, tortured by his own – yes – weakness is naturally out for revenge, abetted by cancerous cop Michael Shannon, yet Ford makes this tale grimly compelling even as Aaron Taylor-Johnson appears to have studied at the foot of Straw Dogs and Deliverance for his unapologetic psychopath.


Ford is such a glacially controlled director that you almost forget to double take at some of the dialogue he attempts to get away with (as screenwriter). At a crucial moment, we discover that Susan not only left her first hubby, she had an abortion to boot, thanks to her leaving the clinic and delivering the line “I just don’t think I’m ever going to be able to look at Edward again after what I did to his child” to a consoling Hutton. Guess who’s standing in front of their rain-lashed car looking entirely bereft, right on cue? Just who’s writing the pulp novel here? Certainly, Sheffield is, with lines like “It’s fun to kill people”.


At other points, Susan is beset by dark visions of her haunting read, as Taylor-Johnson somewhat daftly leaps into frame on a colleague’s baby monitor app as if Ford’s decided to go all out for cheap jump-scare tactics. I was going to suggest he’s trying for a Polanski vibe with her unravelling psyche, but he doesn’t come close. He’s probably also angling for a Hitchcock flavour, certainly with Abel Korzeniowski’s sumptuous, elegant score.


Ford leaves us with Susan being stood up at a dinner date with Edward, letting the viewer surmise whether this was some elaborate revenge on his part – that he knew her emptiness would allow him to reel her in with the book – or rather that he decided he couldn’t face her. I’m not sure she should be too upset, since it probably wasn’t a great idea going looking to rekinde anything, not if Edward’s exorcising his demons through such an extreme elaboration of their experience. But if only we cared either way.


Taylor-Johnson was ladled a Golden Globe for his backwoods pains, while Shannon mustered on Oscar nomination. That latter’s certainly the most watchable part of Nocturnal Animals, enjoying a sympathetic role for a change and eschewing the over-familiar bug-eyed loon shtick. But as potent as Edward’s story is, it can only feel diminished as a tool of revenge/catharsis (complete with ending so absurdly nihilistic, only Nordberg in The Naked Gun could have outdone poor Tony). Ford isn’t so much delivering a slippery narrative conceit as a clunky one, since at least two-thirds of his devices are stillborn, and the one that isn’t is really little more than spruced-up western-noir horror.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

They make themselves now.

Screamers (1995)
(SPOILERS) Adapting Philip K Dick isn’t as easy as it may seem, but that doesn't stop eager screenwriters from attempting to hit that elusive jackpot. The recent Electric Dreams managed to exorcise most of the existential gymnastics and doubts that shine through in the best versions of his work, leaving material that felt sadly facile. Dan O'Bannon had adapted Second Variety more than a decade before it appeared as Screamers, a period during which he and Ronald Shusett also turned We Can Remember It For You Wholesale into Total Recall. So the problem with Screamers isn't really the (rewritten) screenplay, which is more faithful than most to its source material (setting aside). The problem with Screamers is largely that it's cheap as chips.

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

My pectorals may leave much to be desired, Mrs Peel, but I’m the most powerful man you’ve ever run into.

The Avengers 2.23: The Positive-Negative Man
If there was a lesson to be learned from Season Five, it was not to include "man" in your title, unless it involves his treasure. The See-Through Man may be the season's stinker, but The Positive-Negative Man isn't far behind, a bog-standard "guy with a magical science device uses it to kill" plot. A bit like The Cybernauts, but with Michael Latimer painted green and a conspicuous absence of a cool hat.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

The possibilities are gigantic. In a very small way, of course.

The Avengers 5.24: Mission… Highly Improbable
With a title riffing on a then-riding-high US spy show, just as the previous season's The Girl from Auntie riffed on a then-riding-high US spy show, it's to their credit that neither have even the remotest connection to their "inspirations" besides the cheap gags (in this case, the episode was based on a teleplay submitted back in 1964). Mission… Highly Improbable follows in the increasing tradition (certainly with the advent of Season Five and colour) of SF plotlines, but is also, in its particular problem with shrinkage, informed by other recent adventurers into that area.

What a truly revolting sight.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) (2017)
(SPOILERS) The biggest mistake the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels have made is embracing continuity. It ought to have been just Jack Sparrow with an entirely new cast of characters each time (well, maybe keep Kevin McNally). Even On Stranger Tides had Geoffrey Rush obligatorily returning as Barbossa. Although, that picture’s biggest problem was its director; Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge has a pair of solid helmers in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, which is a relief at least. But alas, the continuity is back with a vengeance. And then some. Why, there’s even an origin-of-Jack Sparrow vignette, to supply us with prerequisite, unwanted and distracting uncanny valley (or uncanny Johnny) de-aging. The movie as a whole is an agreeable time passer, by no means the dodo its critical keelhauling would suggest, albeit it isn’t even pretending to try hard to come up with …