Nocturnal Animals

Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen

Director: Tom Ford

Writer: Tom Ford


After having worked as the creative director for both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford has become a master of blending art, style and beauty in his films. In Nocturnal Animals he has created one of the most meticulously crafted and striking films of the year. It is an ambiguous film and the meaning of Ford’s images is not always clear, as with the very first shots which provoked outrage among both critics and viewers for what they deemed to be gratuity or body shaming. I must confess that I’m somewhat confounded by those images as well. I am restraining myself from revealing the nature of these images because I think the shock must have a role to play in the effect that Ford is going for. I will say that these images did make me feel uncomfortable but they also made me critically aware of my discomfort. Now I’m asking myself whether I was right to feel uncomfortable at all, a question that I suspect Ford must have expected from many of his viewers. This film is so perplexingly uncomfortable and beautiful at once that I think Ford might have been disappointed had I not left the screening feeling confounded.

After hosting a conceptual art exhibit at her gallery Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receives a manuscript for a novel penned by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Susan, living a dejected life of passionless work and love with her adulterous husband Hutton (Arnie Hammer), is captivated by the novel that has been dedicated to her. It tells the dark story of family man Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) whose holiday with wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and India (Ellie Bamber) takes a horrific turn when they encounter a gang of reprobates led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This story provokes memories of Susan’s relationship with Edward and the troubles that drew them apart. He wanted her to pursue her artistic calling whereas she wanted him to be more realistic about his literary aspirations. As Susan reads more of Edward’s novel it becomes clearer to her that the disturbing, devastating story he has conceived is an allusion towards the terrible betrayal that destroyed their marriage.

There are three interrelated narratives being told that Ford blends together into one incredible whole. One is the story of an utterly miserable person reflecting on the choices that have led her to where she is. The other is a dark and twisted tale of loss and revenge. Finally, there is the story of an idealistic romance that woefully (and perhaps inevitably) ends in heartbreak. I was particularly struck by how invested and horrified I, much like Susan, was by the second narrative considering that it’s a fictional story within a fictional story. That narrative alone would have made for a compelling film complete with stellar performances by Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon as a worn-down lawman with nothing left to lose. The ultimate story that is being told however adds even greater depth and darkness to what is already an unsettling tale. Isla Fisher’s character for instance serves Edward’s story not only as a wife for his protagonist but also as a clear stand in for Susan. When we see what happens to Tony’s wife later in the novel, it invites all sorts of compelling questions about what exactly Edward is trying to tell his ex-wife by sending her this manuscript and dedicating it to her, especially in light of what we later learn about their marriage.

We see Adams play Susan as both a naïve romantic full of dreams and fancies and as a shell of her former self rendered numb by her cold, empty life. Even when Adams is simply reading the manuscript, she is performing. Her distraught reactions reinforce the ominous nature of Edward’s story every bit as much as Ford’s tone and style in his representation. In this film Susan undergoes a crisis of conscience as she contemplates whether she is being punished for an awful mistake and Adams is to be applauded for deftly conveying her tumultuous, troubled state of mind in a remarkably restrained, understated performance. Gyllenhaal’s Edward also provides an intriguing figure as the Susan’s spurned, estranged ex-husband. The film sets him up as an almost ethereal figure by providing us with two different versions of him: we see the Edward that Susan remembers in her memories and his representation of himself in the novel he’s written. Thus as the film draws closer to the climatic meeting between them, the more intrigued we are to see who he is today and how he really feels about Susan.

The final scene is one that has sparked much debate amongst viewers. Some might call it a confounding ending, but I for one would expect nothing less from such a confounding film as Nocturnal Animals. The film is fascinating in its dark and twisted nature and is almost sickening in its beauty. You want to look away but you just can’t. The cinematography, the colours, the music; it is a film that completely envelops you and refuses to let go. Some scenes are entirely unbearable to watch and yet, much like when I first saw Blue Velvet and A Clockwork Orange, my eyes were fixed squarely on the screen the entire time. It isn’t as violent a film as those two are but it is similar in its dreadful intensity and disturbed artistry. Most of the wounds that are inflicted in this film are emotional ones (the ones in the “real world” anyway) but they are severe all the same. Nocturnal Animals is also an ambiguous film, the kind that believes in providing the pieces to the puzzle but won’t assemble them for you. Watching this film was a gruelling experience but it was also a mesmerising one.

★★★★★

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Grimsby

Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Rebel Wilson, Penélope Cruz, Isla Fisher, Gabourey Sidibe

Director: Louis Leterrier

Writers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston


Personally I’m not a huge fan of Sacha Baron Cohen. I thought he was very funny as Ali G and as Borat but, once I started catching on to the joke, he became less funny for me. In all of his films he plays an outrageous character, goes after easy targets and tries to achieve the most offensive or grossest humour he possibly can. This kind of humour can work well if done in a clever or skilful way but in Cohen’s case it just feels worn-out. What made Borat work was that Cohen was not a household name when it came out and so audiences didn’t know what to expect from him. Ever since that film made him a celebrity I think that his comedy has since become all too familiar. Today you know exactly what you’re going to get from a Sacha Baron Cohen film: gross-out humour and topical bad taste comedy. Those who like Cohen’s films and want to see more of the same will find plenty of it in Grimsby. I however am not one of those people.

Nobby (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a working-class, beer-guzzling football hooligan from the northern England fishing town of Grimsby. It has been 28 years since he lost his younger brother who is now Sebastian Graves (Mark Strong), MI6’s top agent. While on a mission to prevent a terrorist plot, Sebastian is discovered by Nobby who proceeds to cock up his operation, resulting in Sebastian becoming an enemy of the state and forced to go on the run. Nobby brings Sebastian home to Grimsby where they, along with Nobby’s wife Dawn (Rebel Wilson) and their 11 children, can lay low for a while and perhaps even reconnect. Meanwhile Sebastian entreats his colleague and friend Jodie Figgs (Isla Fisher) to help him pursue a lead that could clear his name. Once he discovers a plot that could threaten the entire world, Sebastian realises that the only man he can trust to help him stop it is his idiot brother.

For the most part I found very little of this film to be funny. There were a few moments that managed to get a laugh out of me like this one time near the end when Nobby decides to intervene in the World Cup final. Most of the jokes however are attempts by Cohen to be as shocking and vulgar as he possibly can and they just didn’t do it for me. I wasn’t disgusted or offended by this film in the same way that I was by Dirty Grandpa, I simply found the comedy to be quite weak. The film certainly doesn’t hold out on the gross-out department as it displays a series of outlandishly crass situations that leave very little to the imagination. When I said that I knew what I was getting when going into a Sacha Baron Cohen film, it doesn’t mean that I could have guessed the nature of the situations that Nobby and his brother would find themselves in. I could certainly never have predicted that a film about a football hooligan and a spy would lead me to a scene like the one involving the elephant. Nevertheless those scenes felt more gratuitous to me than humourous. It’s like the film thinks that being as gross as possible is the same thing as being funny.

One thing that can usually be said for Sacha Baron Cohen is that he is often so committed to his characters that he is able to completely disappear into them. In Nobby’s case however the actor remains in the forefront. Maybe this is the result of a further increase in Cohen’s celebrity status after appearing in such acclaimed works as Sweeney Todd and Les Miserables, or it could simply be because Nobby is not nearly as interesting or funny a character as Ali G or Borat. Mark Strong plays his part very seriously, leading to some good deadpan line deliveries, but gives up much of his dignity in the process. How the producers managed to convince him or the other talented actors like Penélope Cruz, Ian McShane and Gabourey Sidibe to be in this film I’ll never know. I’d be very interested in knowing what Strong was thinking as he and Cohen were filming the scene with the poison dart.

The film is crude and silly but not necessarily in an unpleasant way. I found Grimsby to be more senseless than repulsive. The film does try to take its shots the same way that Cohen’s previous films have (including one particular gag involving Donald Trump) but it isn’t clever or radical enough to make any sort of a meaningful impact. In a weird way the humour in this film, while definitely explicit and obscene, is actually pretty harmless. The comedy amounts to little more than toilet humour and sex jokes (albeit graphically so) and is too childish and ridiculous to be taken seriously. Those who enjoy this brand of comedy will like it for what it is. To me however it is a cheap, tactless comedy with some overly trashy scenes that come across as desperate rather than edgy.