Okja’s performative histrionics don’t mask its muddled message

Despite being clearly an auteur work, a result of Netflix letting Snowpiercer‘s Bong-Joon Ho off-leash, Okja feels weirdly like reverse-engineered weirdness. The bare storyline is actually pretty dry, so a lot of showy performative flourish gets added to try to make it pop, but it rarely does. Jake Gyllenhaal, in particular, goes way over the top as a version of Tracy Morgan’s Brian Fellows on even more cocaine, but even Tilda Swinton gets sucked into it, trying to add any life into a dull corporate family sideplot and only succeeding in the pretty riveting opener. At its heart, Okja is about a girl and her superpig, which makes for a decently charming opening twenty minutes, where super-pig Okja is established as a caring and smart presence. But the main creature turns into a plot device rather than a character after she’s taken to New York by a Swinton’s Monsanto stand-in, and the charm of the film goes with it. The addition of the Animal Liberation Front helps insofar as Paul Dano is a lot of fun as a ski-mask wearing freedom fighter, but the movie seems to use them to push against GMO-based superfarming without offering anything approaching a nuanced critique . I’ve got nothing against giving Monsanto bad press, but Okja‘s critiques are shallow straw-man arguments, where Swinton is bad because her attempt at sustainable farming is a lovable, delicious mutant, I suppose? Pass the salt.

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C-

Okja (2017)
Directed by Bong-Joon Ho
Starring Seo-hyeon Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhaal
Rotten Tomatoes (86%)
On Netflix

Okja’s performative histrionics don’t mask its muddled message

Nocturnal Animals is a cold, but human, puzzle box

In its opening credits, featuring nude overweight women dancing with sparklers apropos of nothing, Nocturnal Animals tries to announce itself as BOLD and ARTISTIC, but mostly haughty. The scene, which in-universe is an art exhibit held by Susan (Amy Adams), is sure to immediately turn off many, coming across as degrading people who can’t live up to the physical standards of its attractive and thin cast (including Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, etc) and its fashion icon director, Tom Ford. Nocturnal Animals manages to turn this around over its two hour runtime, becoming more of a examination of (bordering on slam against) the sharks in the upper echelon of artists and fashionistas. It’s a bit of a trip to get to that conclusion, and it leaves enough open ends to allow multiple interpretations, but once it kicks into gear, the mysteries of the film are a treat to unravel.

Nocturnal Animals operates as a fiction-within-fiction story, which isn’t necessarily clear from the trailers. Susan is sent a manuscript of a novel dedicated to her from her ex-husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t heard from in over a decade. We follow both Susan’s response to the novel and her memories of Edward, as well as the action of the novel itself, where husband and father Tony (also Gyllenhaal) whose family has a chance encounter on a lonely road in Texas with violent ends. The two stories seem disparate for a long stretch of the film, but eventually Susan finds that her relationship with Edward has informed the story in unflattering ways. While marketed as a psychological thriller with Susan as the target, Nocturnal Animals is more of a study of authorial intent, and how we carry the burden of how we mistreat and are mistreated by the ones we love. The story-within-the-story is a bit shallow on its own, but gains depth from the knowledge about its author that Susan provides.

There’s no denying, however, that the story-within-the-story is more fun to watch, mostly thanks to the performances of Michael Shannon as a shady detective and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a terrifying sociopath. Ford’s vision of Susan’s life is closer to his comfort zone, but his portrayal of rural Texas is surprisingly rich visually. However, even though Susan’s coldness is an important part of her character, Adams plays Susan as if she’s constantly walking through a dream in a fugue state, which works half the time and feels incredibly stilted the other half. While I love where it ends up (although the ending itself is sure to be divisive), some of Susan’s scenes are a bit of a slog until the pieces from the fictional narrative start to click. The Susan narrative of Nocturnal Animals may benefit from a repeat viewing knowing what to expect, but its second half rewards patience with its first.

B+

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Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Directed by Tom Ford
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Rotten Tomatoes (72%)

SPOILERS and Stray Observations:

  • The opening sequence, which features an array of nude overweight women holding sparklers and seemingly celebrating America Itself, seems at first like a parody of elitist art, with Susan arrogantly calling it a mirror held up to society, but interviews with Ford suggest that it was meant genuinely (if not apologetically). However unnerving Ford’s original idea was (and however much his explanation makes it sound like he’s never met anyone with a waistline before), the fact that Susan would be the artist behind such an exhibit really informs her character in a not-too-flattering way. If Susan is the type to paint a group of people with such a broad brush, it fits that she’d also be able to paint a picture of Edward in broad strokes as well. Susan (and Ford) may have intended the exhibit to show the flaws in America, but it foreshadows the flaws and materialism in herself.
  • MAJOR SPOILERS (highlight to read): The casting of Isla Fisher as Tony’s wife is pretty sly, given her resemblance to Adams. It definitely feels like she is supposed to represent Adams at first, and her death represents the end of their marriage. But what I didn’t notice right away is that, were that the case, why is Tony still played by Jake Gyllenhaal? Tony’s wife is never supposed to be the ersatz Susan, but rather Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray is the Susan stand-in the whole time (as is made clear by his mirroring of Susan’s words calling Tony/Edward weak). While I liked that the ending was an appropriate vengeance on Susan, the fact that Tony ended up dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound bodes poorly for what Edward was actually up to after sending the book to Susan.
  • Seriously, what was up with that jump scare on the baby monitor? Did that serve a purpose?
Nocturnal Animals is a cold, but human, puzzle box