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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Demolition

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis

Director: Jean-Paul Vallée

Writer: Bryan Sipe


Sometimes when I watch a film that is clearly trying to say something profound and I find that I don’t understand it, I’ll often wonder whether the fault is with me or with the film. Is the film really saying nothing of value or am I just missing it because I haven’t thought enough about it? Other times however I know straight away that there is no need to ask myself that question. Either it possesses a genius that is self-evident or it has failed spectacularly. Demolition is one of the latter. It tries so hard to be deep and thoughtful that it completely misses the target and fails to reach any sort of a meaningful resolution. Through its attempts at providing social commentary, its blatantly obvious metaphors and its moments of forced emotion the film tries to present itself as being intelligent and insightful. Instead it achieves the exact opposite.

When his wife dies in a car crash Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is rendered into a kind of stupor where he feels detached from everything around him. He finds himself unable to mourn for his wife and alarms everyone, especially his boss and father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper), with his seeming aloofness and indifference. He is no longer focused on his work, he lies in his bed wide awake for hours on end and he speaks to everyone he comes across glibly and apathetically. When the vending machine at the hospital fails to produce a packet of M&Ms for him, he decides to complain to the machine’s company in a series of letters that detail the entire history of his relationship with his late-wife for context. The company’s head of customer services Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) is moved by these letters and reaches out to Davis. With her help and that of her teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis) Davis attempts to build a new life for himself by destroying (or demolishing if you prefer) his old life.

It is clear that Demolition wants to say something deep and insightful about life and loss, new beginnings, the pursuit of happiness and the nature of change. However Sipe’s script tries far too hard at this and ends up becoming almost a parody of the kind of film it’s trying to be. The film wants to be quirkily unbelievable, in that it depicts two unlikely characters finding each other in an unlikely way, but ends up being wildly implausible. Davis speaks and writes as if every statement he makes is intended to be profoundly contemplative, almost as if he thinks he’s the first person to think any of these things, but just comes across as superficial and hollow. Some of his insights are downright laughable such as in one particular instance when he asks, “do you ever feel like everything is a metaphor?” (a question that is almost worthy of an ostentatious high school English essay). Any hint of complexity and perceptiveness gets lost in the film’s attempts to be cute and quirky, allowing cheap sentimentality to undermine and destroy whatever depth this film might have had.

In fairness to the film there were some moments that I enjoyed. One scene I enjoyed was when Davis meets Karen’s son for the first time and is met with a barrage of F-bombs. Davis puts Chris in his place by explaining to him that “fuck” is a fantastic word and that he undermines it by overusing it. Another scene I liked was where Davis and Chris find a gun that belongs to Karen’s boyfriend and decide to try it out. What follows is incredibly silly but it is also the funniest scene in the film. A few highlights however is not enough to save a film that had me rolling my eyes at its cutesy tone, one-dimensional characters and weak philosophy. There is nothing believable about how Davis and Karen become friends with one another and little chemistry to speak of. Chris is a decent character but is still a victim of the script with its embarrassingly hollow dialogue.

For a film that wants to be intuitive and meaningful, it takes a frustratingly safe approach to its concept. Instead of really trying to confront its themes of loss, sorrow and rebirth, it throws in some light comedy and half-baked philosophies that end up undermining the story. It wants to convey this fantastical feeling of wonderment and chance by having its two unlikely characters meet in an unlikely way and finding both of their lives to be richer for it, but it simply isn’t smart enough to pull it off. It is too farfetched, too schmaltzy and too senseless. The deeper meaning that the film thinks it is finding is clichéd and trite and falls short of anything close to profundity. Neither the story nor its characters feel real; therefore the emotions they are trying to inspire don’t feel real. The result is an aimless, overdone and empty film.

★★

Everest

Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Jake Gyllenhaal

Director: Baltasar Kormákur

Writers: William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy


I’m a big fan of real-life survival stories, especially when they feature great feats of exploration and conquest. One of my favourites is that of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates whose unbelievable tale was stupendously captured by the Kevin Macdonald documentary Touching the Void. Even if the tale doesn’t end in the characters’ survival, I still think there’s something admirable in the idea of men and women venturing forth into unknown dangers and giving their lives in the name of progress and discovery. The tale of Robert Scott’s ill-fated voyage to the South Pole, as encapsulated by The Great White Silence, is one that I think embodies man’s remarkable capacity for bravery, endurance and adventure. These tales, when done well, can provide profound demonstrations of the awesome power of nature and of the indomitable human spirit. This film seeks to do just that by telling the tale of the unfortunate troop that dared to attempt one of nature’s greatest challenges, Mount Everest.

In May 1996 Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) leads an expedition up Mount Everest that is to end in disaster. His troop includes Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a mountaineering veteran, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), an ordinary man attempting an extraordinary feat, and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who seeks to complete her quest to climb the Seven Summits. Their expedition coincides with that of Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose strenuous methods contrast with Rob’s handholding attitude. Amongst the dangers these groups face are the unpredictable weather conditions, the high-altitude illnesses and the aptly named ‘death zone’, the point at which human life becomes unsustainable. The one point that these guides cannot stress enough is that Everest is a great, powerful, untameable beast and that their lives are going to be in danger every step of the way. Their best chance of survival is to remain vigilant, work together and to not underestimate the mountain. Sometimes, however, even that is not enough, as these parties would soon learn.

Unfortunately Everest was not the harrowing tale of the human spirit that was promised but there is nevertheless a lot that it does well. The one thing in particular that really stood out for me was the mountain itself. Through the use of excellent cinematography and well-used 3D technology, the film was able to portray Mount Everest in all of its majesty and grandness. The sheer size and powerful presence of this mountain drives home the awe-inspiring nature of this voyage and the foreboding challenges that come with it. I can only imagine how this film must have looked in IMAX! The film also does a good job in the exposition stage as it establishes the nature of this mountain and details the many threats to be faced by the climbers. The disaster itself is also unnerving to watch, especially when it becomes abundantly clear that some of the climbers are not going to survive. Watching the way that some of these characters simply drop out of the picture without a word or even a whimper, never to be seen again, has a chillingly unsettling effect.

However where this film falls short is in the characters themselves. The simple problem is that there are far too many of them and not enough time to give them all the exposure and development that they require. Some manage to leave an impression such as Clarke as the passionate yet precautious Rob and Brolin as the determinedly brash Beck. Keira Knightly as Rob’s wife Joan also manages to give a surprisingly effective performance considering what little screen time she has. For the rest of the ensemble though there simply isn’t much to hold on to. The characters end up distinguishing themselves more by star power than by personality. When the disaster actually struck the only reason I could recognise who was who was because I recognised the actors playing them. This ended up having a detaching effect on me as I struggled to empathise with their anguishes.

Overall this film succeeds in portraying the imposing sovereignty of nature as personified by Mount Everest, but not in depicting the inspiring robustness of the human heart. In other words it delivers on the technical aspects but not on the emotion. The disaster that befalls Everest is as powerful as it is devastating and is a spectacle to watch. However the people on the ground who fall victim to this calamity ultimately amount to little more than bodies in the snow. There are perhaps one or two individuals whose losses I did feel, but the others simply didn’t register with me. I think it might be the Pearl Harbour effect where a film gets so caught up with the disaster that it forgets about the tragedy, although certainly not to the same degree. Some moments were moving enough that I cannot accuse this film of being emotionally empty. However it simply doesn’t have enough of the anguishing sorrow, the rousing endurance and the poignant inspiration that a film like this should have.

★★★