“And I’m here to remind you
Of the mess you left when you went away
It’s not fair to deny me
Of the cross I bear that you gave to me”
– Alanis Morissette, “You Oughta Know” (1995)
*I saw Nocturnal Animals on Sunday – 1 January 2017.
There’s an old saying that you should never insult an artist because you’ll just wind up part of their work. Few people ever heed this warning; probably because most “aspiring” artists never put forth the effort to graduate to “working” artists – to say nothing of “famous” artists. But for those who do make it to the latter stage, portraying those who wronged them can often have hilarious – if not litigious – results.
But what’s the point of making art if it doesn’t resonate with both the artist and the audience? As much as artists fancy themselves as holding a mirror up to the world, it’s a funhouse mirror with cracks and distortions purposefully placed on the image. Naturally, some people won’t like what’s reflected back at them. The real question is whether the distortion is the work of the mirror’s maker or in the eye of the beholder.
Susan Morrow’s art gallery is one of the most revered in Los Angeles. She’s a rich beautiful woman whose clientele include some of the most influential movers and shakers in the industry. But it all barely covers the emptiness she feels from her loveless marriage and spending her day around shallow sycophants.
So comfortable is she in her routine that she isn’t prepared for the arrival of a package from her first husband, Edward. The package is the manuscript to Edward’s upcoming novel, Nocturnal Animals, which he has dedicated to her. As she pushes her way through Edward’s disturbing, violent tome, she’s forced to confront some truths about their marriage which she’d rather forget.
I never saw A Single Man, Tom Ford’s critically-acclaimed 2009 historical drama. I am, however, aware of the fact that he’s one of the most renowned fashion designers in the entire world. Given that success in one field doesn’t automatically translate into another (just look at every musician who’s tried to break into films, and vice versa), I probably would have had greater doubts about this film, had I gone in knowing Ford both directed it and adapted the screenplay. In fact, given the film’s confusing trailers, I didn’t know what to expect.
Thankfully, my love Amy Adams served me well (at least, better than it did the last time) and I was treated to a story about how life manifests itself through art in unexpected ways. As an artist myself – specifically a dramatist and storyteller – this struck a particular chord with me. I believe that venting one’s frustrations through art is healthy, but I worry about how my frustrations manifest themselves when they become extreme. It’s one thing for this to happen in my journal, but it’s another to showcase my angriest thoughts to the world. But at least some catharsis was achieved, right?
The performances are all top-notch. Amy Adams continues to earn her distinction as one of the best working actresses today. The difference between her younger version of Susan, who had no problem voicing her frustrations, to the older Susan, who swallows a lot of shit, is creepy in how familiar it is. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Jake Gyllenhaal – he seems to do films (Prince of Persia, Southpaw) that, to me, scream “I should be famous!” rather than showing a versatile actor. But occasionally he’ll something like this or Nightcrawler to remind us that he’s good when in the right hands. His dual performance as Edward, Susan’s ex, and Tony, the protagonist of Edward’s novel, is almost a literal interpretation of Susan’s inner frustrations. And the rest of the star-studded cast – Isla Fisher, Michael Shannon, Jena Malone, Michael Sheen, Laura Linney – all leave lasting impression, even when their characters only appear in one scene.
This is thanks in no short part to Ford. Had I this was Ford’s work going in, I probably would have expected nothing more than for the cast to all dress sharply (which they do). But to Ford’s credit, he writes and directs in such a way that his actors are able to naturally inhabit their characters. Better yet, he and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey know when to hold back when necessary. Make no mistake, all of the shots are gorgeous, but the duo know when well-choreographed action is needed and when a quiet still shot can be just as effective, if not moreso.
Nocturnal Animals was a pleasant surprise because I expected nothing more than another award-season indie drama starring a bunch of pretty white people whose lives are suddenly up-ended. Granted, the film checks off every item on that list, but it’s strength is that in spite of that (and the aforementioned confusing ad campaign) it’s still a story about scars that linger long after the damage has healed. It may manifest itself in the form of quiet reservation, it may manifest itself in the form of bloody revenge. But you have to acknowledge it, otherwise you’re just risking more damage.