Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Nov 26, 2016 8:27 am 
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Pretty things in danger

Nocturnal Animals, the second film directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, is so shallow it makes you wonder even more about his debut, A Single Man. A Single Man focused too much on appearances, clearly, but it had an emotional core. And its gay theme, from Christopher Isherwood's novel, fit Ford's gay sensibility. That sensibility is present in spades with Nocturnal Animals. Every scene has a beautiful man in it, either beautifully turned out, or nude. But there's no point. It's just silly. Even the assistants in a gallery, the waiters in a restaurant, everyone is a chance to show off an immaculate, handsome young man.

Susan (Amy Adams) is an art dealer with terrible insomnia. She lives in a cold gated L.A. mansion with a big Jeff Koons in the garden. She is married to Arnie Hammer, tall, perfect, immaculately suited. But he exists only to go off and be unfaithful to her, while she reads a novel sent her by her first husband, whom she hasn't seen for 19 years. The novel comes to life, and in it the main character, Tony, is played by that first husband, Edward, while she also flashes back on Edward in the days when she knew him.

Tony-Edward is played by Jake Gyllanhaal, one of the handsomest, hunkiest guys in Hollywood. He looks good naked, and we get ample opportunities to see him that way. Both of his characters are weak. As Edward, we learn that Susan abandoned him in a particularly cruel way. There is a hint, not at all subtle - passing a large painting by, or in the style of, Christopher Wool, of the word "Revenge" - that Edward's new novel, with the title of the movie, is an act or retribution, or a veiled threat.

The novel, which takes up most of the movie and invades Susan's tortured, sleepless mind, is a lurid, pulp-style thriller. If it's supposed to show that Edward, who's writing skill Susan used to question, is now a good writer, it's a flop. As film storytelling, it's also a flop. In it, Tony (Jake; Edward, with a beard, at first) is driving with his wife and daughter in his restored vintage Mercedes toward Marfa in West Texas, the shrine of minimal art established by Donald Judd - one of the hints that may make you wonder if art dealer Susan isn't just imagining all this. They are forced off the road by three thugs in two old American cars, and after a period of cruel teasing and taunting, Tony is separated from the women, who are later found raped and murdered. He finds his way to the police, and over time, he and Michael Shannon, archly playing a cowboy cop (dying of lung cancer, it turns out later, and certainly not looking well), get revenge on the men.

The thugs are played by Robert Aramayo, who drops out of the picture, for some reason; Karl Glusman, who's a pretty young man, and is the one who kidnaps Tony; and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, apparently the ring leader. Taylor-Johnson is big, handsome, and hunky. And we get to see him fully naked in a memorable shot where he is sitting on a toilet on the front porch of his shack.

The story Susan gets so excited and troubled by, and which makes all her memories flood back, seems only designed to do that to her, and absorb us for a while. It has no other point. It's not particularly convincing. To begin with, it all seems an opportunity to admire Jake Gyllanhaal, and the three men are too pretty to be thugs.

One begins to realize that everything is an opportunity for Tom Ford to admire something. And not much more than that. But cinema is a visual art, and it's tempting to watch his films, even if they are shallow, because they are beautiful. And they're not only a chance to admire beautiful houses, vintage cars, and handsome men. In A Single Man, there was that moving moment of Colin Firth on the phone; and Julianne Moore was great as Firth's character's best friend. In Animals, there is a juicy turn by Laura Linney, in a brief flashback in a restaurant as Susan's society mother, who warns her, knowingly, as she sips a martini, that all women turn into their mothers, "Just you wait." But there isn't real emotion this time as there was in the first film, only discomfort.

Nocturnal Animals, 116 mins. adapted by Ford from the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, debuted at Venice 2 Sept. 2016; also some other festivals, including Toronto, London, and Stockholm. UK release 9 Nov. 2016. Limited US release 23 Nov., wider 9 Dec.

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