Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Another Tom Ford film, another drama set mostly inside a character’s head, but this time, the passion the director showed in A Single Man is lacking and has been replaced by recurring removals of reading glasses.

Nocturnal AnimalsUSA
3*

Director:
Tom Ford

Screenwriter:
Tom Ford

Director of Photography:
Seamus McGarvey

Running time: 120 minutes

Once again probing the mental world of his main character, as he did with equally sumptuous visuals in A Single Man, Tom Ford follows up his much acclaimed début feature with another intimate psychological work, titled Nocturnal Animals. Taking a stab at metanarration, Ford evokes fear and anxiety in the viewer rather than any serious empathy for the characters, but instead of being emotionally engaging, this thriller is curiously superficial.

Opening at an exhibition with gorgeously composed full-frontal videos of corpulent elderly women dancing like cheerleaders in slow motion, the film quickly establishes the artistic surroundings of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), the gallery owner. She seems melancholy and unfulfilled despite the show’s indisputable success and would later call it “junk, total junk”. (As a sidenote, I would encourage filmmakers to steer away from such descriptions of art in their films, as it makes the reviewer’s job of finding a pithy label for the relevant film way too easy.) Late at night, she returns to her carefully curated mansion with clean lines full of grey and black in the Hollywood Hills. Shortly after her car pulls in and the gate closes behind her, a dark-brown classic Mercedes pulls up.

The following morning, her butler shows her a package that has been delivered overnight. It is an as yet unpublished manuscript that shares its title with the film and is written by Susan’s ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t spoken to in nearly 20 years. From this point on, with her dapper husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), away on business in New York City and making little effort to keep it a secret he is cheating on her, Susan immerses herself in the novel, which is ominously dedicated to her.

In the very first shot depicting the action of the novel, we see the same dark-brown classic Mercedes, which is an easy but effective way of signalling to us that this tale is going to be rooted in Susan’s world; more specifically, the story is artistically autobiographical for its writer, Edward. The main character, Tony Hastings (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal), is leaving on holiday for West Texas with his wife and daughter, but on the way there, they are pulled off the road by a gang of young men who seem to be drunk but are likely just slightly psychotic.

Calling to mind the stunningly intense beginning of Andrew Neel’s Goat, Nocturnal Animals presents a scene of emotionally taxing (although at times too lengthy and repetitive) action that demonstrates how Tony’s timidity and desire to avoid conflict eventually results in a reluctance to be aggressive in protecting his family, a hesitation that quickly leads to tragedy. The point of contact between the two very different films, however, is the similarity in people’s reactions to this event: In both films, we feel with the intimidated victim as he is bullied or coerced into doing something he doesn’t want to, although the assailants never use a physical weapon of any kind. And in both films, people told of the altercation react with surprise that the victim did not fight back.

Gyllenhaal embodies a character we can wholly relate to despite his evident fear and confusion about the inexplicable violence committed against him and his family and his uncertainty about whether and how he should retaliate. This is something Tony Hastings struggles with until the climax, and even then he is far from comfortable acting in a way that makes logical sense but goes against everything he believes in.

It should be obvious from this short description that the story-within-a-story set in Texas is far more interesting than its shallow Los Angeles counterpart, despite Ford’s flimsy attempts at creating interlocking visual transitions, which for the most part compare very badly with those in a similarly themed film such as Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. In Daldry’s film, the point of the transitions were often to connect characters in ways that were immediately recognisable, with every shared tick creating a bond between people in a purely cinematic fashion. It made the viewer privy to private but revealing moments and left her feeling empowered in a way that is unconventional but wholly within the domain of the cinema.

Ford’s film, by contrast, while dutifully producing a disparate smattering of transitions (bright red lights, similar surroundings, an L-cut) in an attempt to bridge the chasm between the two worlds, is far less sure of itself. It half-heartedly suggests points of contact, but the traces are few and far between and would demand repeat viewings to unpack, if they even exist, thus making immediate enjoyment all but impossible.

Often, the cut is simple, but it always returns to the same laughable image: a shaken Susan on her sofa with the manuscript in her lap, removing her thick-framed glasses as a way to calm herself and return her to her immediate surroundings. Amy Adams is a wonderful actress, but the over-repeated earnestness loses its initial power and quickly devolves into a caricature of earnestness.

Ford manages to tie things up rather neatly with the climax in the hypodiegesis, although the diegesis, which is also split up into a past (read: flashbacks) and a present, is a different matter altogether. The final scene of Nocturnal Animals is truly a missed opportunity, as a melancholy wait replaces what could have been a forceful punch in the gut: What if Edward had shown up but was played by someone other than Jake Gyllenhaal?

Enemy (2013)

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in existential thriller about two men who might just be the same and that is as unconventional as it is spellbinding.

enemy-denis-villeneuveCanada
3.5*

Director:
Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter:
Javier Gullón
Director of Photography:
Nicolas Bolduc

Running time: 90 minutes

“Chaos is order yet undeciphered”, reads the epigraph to Enemy, another striking film by one of Canada’s most talented filmmakers, Denis Villeneuve. It’s not clear what this means, exactly, and confusion reigns for much of the film, until the very end, when things start to come together and leave us… completely lost.

Based on The Double, a novel by one of the masters of magical realist writing, Portugal’s José Saramago (author of Baltasar and Blimunda, the most affecting love story I’ve ever read), the film is all about creating a suffocating atmosphere full of tension and mystery that is bewildering yet alluring, a kind of science-fiction film without the science fiction.

Set in an almost unrecognisable Toronto, permeated with an ominous yellow haze, the film opens with a voiceover by Isabella Rossellini, whose character has phoned her son to tell him, in a voice that sounds uncomfortably robotic, she is concerned about his living situation.

We soon get a glimpse of what she is talking about (his threadbare apartment), but not before we see a man walk down a shadowy corridor, filled with the same yellowish light that appears almost everywhere in the film, and join a group of people in a dark room where they look at a woman in high heels who may or may not step on a giant tarantula.

This incident, out of place as it appears to be, will be at the back of our minds by the time the final scene rolls around – one that fully qualifies as bathos, because it unexpectedly serves as the only source of laughter in a very serious film.

What this seriousness comprises is one man’s discovery he has an identical twin, even down to them having the same scars. The man is Adam Bell, and he is a college history teacher. Slightly awkward and childlike, and clearly suffering from a form of depression, he gets a recommendation from a colleague to watch a movie and discovers an actor in the background who is a spitting image of him.

This actor turns out to be Anthony St. Claire, who looks and sounds exactly like him, and even has a wife who closely resembles Adam’s own girlfriend. Adam doesn’t know what to do, even though his classes at the moment are about repetition in history, and we’ve already seen his own life mirror this aspect in other ways.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as both men in this, his second film for the director in less than a year after another serious turn in Prisoners, but although we follow the twists and turns of the plot, as far as possible, mostly from Adam’s point of view, his inaction or reticence to dig deeper and confront this inexplicable enigma is frustrating, although it could have been much worse in the hands of another director or another actor. Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal maintain the tension throughout with very little dialogue and bucket loads of atmospheric lighting and music, as they reel us in to persuade us the story will reveal its answers in the end.

But anyone familiar with Saramago knows he isn’t big on answers. His style – long sentences and dialogue without quotation marks or attribution, constructed around a central theme or inciting incident – has always been the overriding factor in readers’ appreciation of his work, and his books have not had much success as big-screen adaptations.

Enemy, however, effectively conveys the feeling of the material, and although many viewers will likely be disappointed by the lack of a more explanatory dénouement, they should stay put and watch the end credits, in which a lateral tracking shot from one end of the city to the other makes it very clear this is no ordinary film. As beautiful yet unworldly as anything you can imagine, it may be the most inspired shot from a technical point of view since Andrei Tarkovsky pulled back from a solitary house at the end of Solaris.

Meaning in the film always seems to elude us, as we can almost never know the characters’ thoughts or explain their behaviour. We don’t know whether the colleague’s recommendation at the beginning was by design or by chance, it is tough to understand why a meeting is arranged in a lonely motel an hour outside the city, and moreover why Adam agrees to it, and a scene with him in an empty classroom, in front of an enormous diagram of “chaos” and “order” scrawled on the board, seems entirely out of place because it is so obviously relevant. Once again, we get just enough information to make us want more, but it is always too little for us to decipher the chaos and see the order behind it.

The film makes about as much sense as those of David Lynch, or some of Villeneuve’s fellow Canadian, David Cronenberg. Speaking of Cronenberg, Enemy has one of the most brutal and best-staged single-take car crash scenes you are ever likely to see, and it reminds us how skillfully the director sometimes uses his camera, as anyone who has seen his earlier works, like Next Floor, would confirm.

With more questions than answers, Enemy won’t be to everyone’s liking, but even though it sometimes feels like a version of Żuławski’s Possession, though thankfully without a hysterical Isabelle Adjani running around, the mysterious ambience is spellbinding, and our minds stay busy because we keep wondering what will happen next.

Prisoners (2013)

Denis Villeneuve’s dark film about obsession is not his best, but story’s complexity makes for a riveting tale.

prisonersUSA
3.5*

Director:
Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriter:
Aaron Guzikowski

Director of Photography:
Roger Deakins

Running time: 155 minutes

The final minutes of Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s somber Prisoners are as dark and thrilling as anything that precedes them, but their impact could have been infinitely more powerful had Hugh Jackman’s character not been so incredibly thick.

Jackman plays Keller Dover, a manly family man with a remodelling and repairs business who in the film’s opening scene accompanies his son, Ralph, on his first deer hunt and does his best to make the youthful teenage boy feel he is now in some way being initiated into manhood. Keller tells Ralph how his father used to always be prepared for everything, good or bad. In other words, a real Boy Scout. Of course, he will soon face a situation he has no idea how to handle.

But there is something off about Keller. He is intensely serious about everything, his body literally taught with tension, and in a pivotal scene early in the film, when he is searching the house and we get the first glimpse of his basement, the camera lingers just long enough for us to notice a gas mask hanging in the corner.

Halfway through the film, when we return to the basement, we get a better view of the neatly arranged stock on the shelves and have the disturbing impression Keller is a survivalist. Prisoners doesn’t elaborate – the film is more show than tell, and you need some patience for this simple yarn spun out over two and a half hours – but one questions what purpose this information serves our understanding of the plot’s central event, other than to make us increasingly uneasy.

This central event is the abduction of Keller’s and his wife’s young girl, Anna, together with Joy, the young daughter of the Dovers’ friends, the Birches, with whom they spent Thanksgiving when they thought the children could quickly go back home to look for an SOS whistle.

Villeneuve already signals in a scene very early on that we should be suspicious of a caravan that is parked in the neighbourhood. We cannot see who is inside, but we know it is an ominous vehicle because we get at least two shots from the point of view of someone unknown on the inside. Luckily, Ralph sees the caravan, and when his sister disappears, he mentions it to his parents, who inform the police.

The police track down the caravan soon enough, but the driver, the young man Alex Jones, seems to be either on drugs or otherwise handicapped, and as he tries to flee, he rams the vehicle into a tree, obviously making his involvement in the disappearance of the girls seem all the more likely. But with him clamming up, the police thinking he is merely mentally handicapped, and the law requiring either arrest or release after 48 hours of detention, he is let go, which angers Keller to no end.

This is where he takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of his daughter’s disappearance. But life is not so simple, and while we have grave suspicions that Alex had anything to do with the abduction, one or two tiny but not insignificant moments make us question what he is thinking, or at least what he has seen and may not want to share because of whatever fear he has.

In the end, the film turns out to be infinitely more complex than we may have anticipated, and there are countless incidents or images that seem to be loose ends – or worse, dead ends – that we may never tie together. But slowly, things fall into place. The theme of a maze, made visible by one particular loony whom we and the police notice once word spreads of Anna’s and Joy’s disappearance, is very appropriate here.

The major investigating officer is Detective Loki, and as played by Jake Gyllenhaal there is some trace of his character in Zodiac, as the normally cool and rational individual becomes very attached to the investigation, to the point where he may very well take the law into his own hands if he feels it is not proving to be effective enough on its own.

As the snow falls in rural Pennsylvania and hope disappears of ever finding the two innocent girls, the action escalates, mostly due to Keller’s and Loki’s growing obsession with finding the perpetrator of the crime. However, Keller’s obviously strained relationship with his wife (we almost never see the two of them together in a scene) and Loki’s past, which we can surmise has been filled with sadness even though we have no idea what is at the root of this sadness, are left unexplored by the film, and ultimately leaves us more unattached to the narrative than we ought to have been.

Villeneuve has made some wonderful films in the past, including the widely acclaimed Incendies and the extraordinary Polytechnique. Both of them were violent films, but they were told with great style and a sense for telling a story in an interesting way. Although Prisoners is far from those highpoints, it is a work most directors would be proud of, and despite the slow pace of the storytelling (we only grasp the meaning of the title almost right at the end thanks to a newspaper headline), it remains a strong presentation of an investigation where leads seem to be in such short supply.