Saturday, 26 November 2016

Movie Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)



When it comes to the divide between mainstream blockbusters and arthouse features, the key difference I’ve found between them is how the audience digests them, as it were. With mainstream films, they are designed to be enjoyed in the moment in a rather visceral fashion; this would explain why smaller release action films aren’t referred to as “arthouse” and instead as “straight-to-DVD”. Art films, like most other instances of Art with a capital A, largely exist for the sake of contemplation after the fact. The usually deeper subtexts and more intricate cinematic techniques stimulate further discussion after the fact, looking into the greater context of the work rather than instant gratification. Now, there is no ‘right’ way to make films and, when done right, both of these styles can lead to great works of cinema. However, of the two examples, I find myself being more hesitant when it comes to art films. After getting through today’s film, hopefully I’ll be able to explain why that is. This is Nocturnal Animals.


The plot: Art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams), after years of estrangement from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), receives a manuscript from him in the mail for his new novel ‘Nocturnal Animals’. As she reads through it, experiencing the story of Texan family man Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his quest for revenge for what happened to his family, she begins to personally connect with the character… and begins to wonder if things could have gone differently between her and Edward.

This film starts out on a rather loud note with easily the weirdest opening credits of any film I’ve sat through this year, possibly ever. It consists of a bunch of overweight women in patriotic Wonder Woman-esque clothing holding sparklers and waving them around, shot in slow motion so that we see every jiggle of their bodies. We eventually learn that this part of an exhibit that Susan’s gallery is putting on, but in the moment, it makes for the ultimate mindfrag experience. However, for as strange as it is, it is actually the perfect tone setter for the rest of the film; specifically, in that it sets up a film that so desperately wants the audience to decode what it’s trying to say. As a whole, the film makes several points concerning sexual politics and vigilantism, as well as the divide between reality/fiction and high society/common society. However, it feels less like the film sinking its teeth into these topics and more blindly feeling around in the dark for them, never managing to really grab at them during the film’s run time. The whole time, whenever the film gets into its deeply serious mood, I couldn’t help but keep being reminded of this.

But whatever, subtext doesn’t need to be the defining factor when it comes to what succeeds and what doesn’t about a film; what about the actual plot? Or, rather, plots because there are two at work at any given time. The first plot we’re introduced to is that of Susan and her romantic history, specifically that with Edward. Now, while her circumstances provide some decent opportunities for drama, most of which involve the feeling of past love, all of it falls pretty flat come film’s end for two key reasons. The first being the ending, which is such a damp squib that it barely even counts as any kind of resolution. The second, and more pressing, issue is that the majority of Susan’s scenes involve her reading the novel. As a result, she has little to no urgency within the plot itself. We are essentially watching someone else read for an hour and a half. When your core drama is based around something even Seinfeld made fun of, there is something seriously wrong with your film.

And then there’s the story-within-a-story, involving Tony and his hunt for revenge, and it’s here where the film gets kind of interesting. Gyllenhaal is one of those actors that I would literally watch in anything and, even if he feels a little underutilized here, he still delivers when he is called upon. Not only that, Michael Shannon acting opposite him as a Texas ranger helping him track down the men responsible is very good as well, bringing probably the closest this film gets to actual pathos during the film’s running time. Since this is the actual majority of the film, this could have been the great salvager for the somewhat underwhelming ‘main’ plot… except this aspect of the film isn’t that great either. Like I said, Gyllenhaal is still good but, holy hell, the guy barely has anything to work with here. How do you make a film with him in two roles and still not know how to use him properly? Not only that, because of how strangely written the villain of the storyline is, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in what is unfortunately his best performance yet, and how the story is framed as a fictional story even within the film’s context, it is still rather underwhelming. Not since Divergent have I seen a film fail to create a genuine reality out of its own action.

As if the two separate parts weren’t weak enough on their own, they become even more pointless when they are brought together. As a slight addendum to my earlier statements, the film overall consists of three main stories: Sarah in the present, reading and contemplating; Sarah in the past, experiencing her budding relationship with Edward through awfully thin melodrama; and Tony in the novel on his road of vengeance. There are times when they nicely intersect, like with some very nice symmetrical shots of Sarah and Tony that help convey the connection that is supposedly made between them, but otherwise these timelines don’t so much align as much as barge in on each other. Hell, the attempts at symmetry end up making little sense in how the plots are framed, so they end up serving no larger purpose other than looking nice. There’s some vague sense of correlation in terms of the edits made, but otherwise it genuinely feels like there is no rhyme or reason to why certain story elements are juxtaposed with each other. Cloud Atlas may have been pinned as ‘confusing’ by certain audiences, but at least there the transitions between plots were far smoother than this.

All in all, normally I’d be receptive when it comes to interpreting films; maybe there legitimately is something here that I’m missing. That said, I honestly do not care to read further into what is already a pretty dull and underwhelming film. The acting is crushing in how lifeless it can be, especially since I know full well that these actors are capable of so much more, the writing feels like it’s aimlessly reaching for a point to no avail, and while the production itself is competent and even leads to some genuinely impressive shots, it’s just fancy window dressing for what is ultimately a film with nothing to say. It is everything that I can’t stand about art films, containing this aggravating self-imposed grandiosity that feels in no way warranted. I’m ranking it lower than The Do-Over because, for as annoying as that was, at least things were actually happening in that film. No joke, even with it making me step down as a Sandler apologist, I’d still rather watch that again than this. However, because this film is objectively well-made and constructed, it doesn’t fare as bad as Norm Of The North, which is incompetent on pretty much every level.

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