Nocturnal Animals is a cold, but human, puzzle box

It’s a bit of a trip to get to the 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.

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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?

Too Late is defined too strongly by its (sometimes skillful) gimmicks

If it lost its gimmicks and shed a bit of fat, Too Late has the bones of a good gumshoe flick.

Too Late is halfway decent noir story anchored by a more than decent lead, but it lets itself get swallowed by its gimmicks. The movie is presented as a series of five twenty-odd minute one-take shots, with mixed results. The opening segment has some neat tricks behind it, including getting star John Hawkes from one end of town to another while maintaining action at a fixed point, and the reveals in the last are effective. But not all of the actors are up to the task, and the reliance on the one-take structure don’t do them any favours; many of the scenes in the second section, in particular, have a student-play vibe to them, despite the presence of known names like Robert Forster and Jeff Fahey (Dichen Lachman, however, acquits herself well as a twist on the no-nonsense stripper trope). The nonlinear structure also feels like an afterthought to add some unnecessary extra novelty. The sidebars the movie somehow finds time for don’t always work, such as a pair of minor drug dealers with no real purpose other than to pad out the takes and the film’s annoying insistence on using film itself as a source of dialogue far too often. If it lost its gimmicks and shed a bit of fat, Too Late has the bones of a good gumshoe flick, albeit one a bit too reliant on stuffing women in refrigerators.

C

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Too Late (2016)
Dir. Dennis Hauck
Starring John Hawkes, Crystal Reed, Dichen Lachman, and Natalie Zea
Rotten Tomatoes (70%)

Loving is a subdued and unfortunately dry dramatization

While it avoids sappy and melodramatic pitfalls, Loving doesn’t often bother to replace them with something interesting to watch in the interim.

There’s an old stereotype about awards bait that goes something like dramatize civil rights trailblazers, collect nominations. Loving seems to fit into this category, as its the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple whose legal battle for recognition in Virginia led to a national end to race-based marriage restrictions. It’s the kind of political victory that nearly everyone today agrees was a fantastic thing, and gains relevance with the recent analogous decision for same-sex marriage and renewed focus on race relations. It even has a convenient double meaning in the title, which would be hilariously over-the-top were it not true and all. But it’s important to recognize that the title is Loving, not Loving v. Virginia. Direct Jeff Nichols has decided to tell the story of the couple, with the court case happening mostly in the background. This decision avoids most of the sappy and melodramatic pitfalls of awards season drama, but it doesn’t often bother to replace them with something interesting to watch in the interim.

The fact that it works at all is a testament to the tender performances of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. Edgerton portrays Richard as something of a good-old-boy, handy and eager to provide for and protect his family, but full of genuine decency. The movie often returns to the image of Richard building houses for others as his job, contrasting with his frustration at not being able to build a house for his family. Mildred seems more passive at the start, although Negga’s performance never lets her seem unaware, but she shows more altruistic tendencies at the prospect of setting legal precedent. However, as the movie starts with Richard and Mildred getting married, there’s little done to sell the bond between these two people in the early going. While the performers make it work by the halfway mark, there’s nothing to invest us in the events of the early going aside from a historical sense of decency.

The movie portrays a marriage in a tender and subdued way, while not focusing much on the conflict. There is some spark of trouble in the second half, when Mildred welcomes media attention for the cause while Richard more wishes the world would vanish, but its understated to the point of subtext. Nichols standard Michael Shannon briefly shows up to inject some life as a photographer, but vanishes as quickly as he appears. The legal proceedings are secondary, which is likely a stealth blessing given that Nick Kroll shows up as the main attorney; Kroll bears a physical resemblance to the real Bernard Cohen, but doesn’t have range outside of “grinning jackass”. Despite the legal mountain to climb, Loving doesn’t present a human villain to personify the conflict, outside of Martin Csokas’ sheriff in the first half. His sheriff is an uninteresting condescending bloviating racist stock type, and essentially every other character with a speaking role in the film is sympathetic to the Lovings’ situation (although many, including Richard’s mother and Mildred’s sister, deem their devotion foolish), forcing us to frame the central conflict in terms of Lovings vs The World. Since we know going in that the Lovings are successful, there isn’t any urgency to the story. The moment that Mildred receives the news about the Supreme Court decision should be a major reason for cheer, but instead elicits are resounding meh.

Director Jeff Nichols has established himself as a rural storyteller with his previous films, such as Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special. Each of those portrayed areas in the Southern USA with a distinct directorial voice, linking them together even though they had vastly different content, ranging from an examination of schizophrenia to a story about a super-powered preteen. Loving has some of Nichols’ eye, especially in its treatment of car culture, but at many times looks like the awards bait it desperately tries not to be (the cloying strings of the score don’t help). Its dedication to restraint and its lack of soapboxing is admirable, but there’s very little else to fill that space other than a time capsule of the way things was. His previous films have a knack for portraying people realistically, but the situations surrounding them made their plights more interesting. Putting realistic people in a realistic situation treated realistically turns out to be less interesting to watch than one might think.

C

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Loving (2016)
Dir. Jeff Nichols
Starring Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Martin Csokas, and Nick Kroll
Rotten Tomatoes (89%)

Arrival’s human elements outshine its speculative ones

Arrival is a sparse, thoughtful, beautiful film that I just can’t love.

Arrival is the kind of major Hollywood movie some sci-fi fans have been eternally asking for. It’s a story of alien vessels descending on Earth that doesn’t present itself as an excuse to blow up the White House, or immediately turn into a cheap thrill ride. Its main focus is on something technical (linguistics), and it doesn’t immediately turn into faux-mathy quantum-this relativity-that technobabble but instead lets it drive the plot. It involves nations colluding and high stakes, yes, but it also is consistently a very personal story that never loses sight of its main character. It leaves plenty of room for imagination while not resorting to magical excuses. But something’s still missing for me. Arrival is a sparse, thoughtful, beautiful film that I just can’t love, mostly because it’s payoff simply didn’t entirely work for me. To go on much further would be clearly spoiler territory, but suffice to say that the movie doesn’t cheat with any twists nor does it betray its tone. In fact, its payoff is incredibly affecting dramatically. While the viewer in me interested in human stories left satisfied, the world-investigating nerd in me felt a bit let down.

Arrival’s sparsity and humanistic elements come to the forefront immediately, starting with flashback’s to Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) daughter dying young, and allowing the landing of the aliens to happen entirely offscreen. We only see what Dr. Banks sees, and only get a full-out effects shot once she’s brought in by the military as a linguistics expert. Twelve crafts have landed sporadically around the world, and while Dr. Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) try to figure out just what they want, they must work with the other eleven nations while also staving off aggression towards the visitors both foreign and on their base. It’s timely that international mistrust plays such a large role here, considering the current nationalistic trend in politics, but Arrival mostly shies away from that form of commentary. It has more sympathy for the aliens themselves, and condemns those who see mystery and respond with fear. Alt-right-esque commentators make brief unsavory appearances, panic spreads through a literal game of telephone, and when Renner notes that they’re having “Coffee with some aliens”, it’s possible to mishear as something very politically relevant today.

For all that it has to say about how we treat those deemed “other”, Arrival is more interested in it’s sci-fi elements than its political ones. And while they don’t entirely land for me, they take big swings and hit home emotionally. A lot of it’s successes have to do with its score, beautifully subdued and often incredibly sad, and Villeneuve’s command of mood, painting the movie in a washed-out blue haze on Earth and surgically cold blacks and whites on the vessel. Its alien design is fairly minimalistic, with the gravity-bending trick seen in the trailers as its lone flashy moment. Otherwise, it’s content with its giant black obelisks of vessels, remarkable for their unremarkability. Amy Adams gives a career-best performance in the middle of a fantastic career, important as the movie rests entirely on her shoulders. No amount of disappointment in the end result can erase the fantastic buildup, and if you’re able to go with it all the way, the reward is memorable and touching.

B

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Arrival (2016)

Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Forest Whitaker
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

SPOILERS BELOW:

Really, my only problem with the film is that its ending plays with causality in a way that felt a bit convenient. On a larger scale, I like that it’s willing to play around with a big idea like perception of time, but on a micro scale, the conclusion it presents us with is one where we have no free will. I’ve read elsewhere interpretations that, instead of choosing to perform certain actions in the hope of certain results, heptapods (and eventually Dr. Banks) choose whether or not to prevent certain events from occuring. This seems to open up a giant Grandfather paradox, which the movie never really addresses in a satisfying way. A many-worlds or timelines interpretation isn’t really humoured either, as then I would expect Dr. Banks would see visions of her life with and without Hannah. The fact that it leaves a lot to discuss is a good thing, and it doesn’t negate the fantastic buildup and film-making nor the dramatic impact of the finale, but it doesn’t feel like it fully explores the ramifications of its twist.

The Accountant and Jane Got a Gun both rely heavily on their peripherals

Both fail to rise above problems in their plotting and rely far too much on flashback storytelling, but The Accountant’s plotting is wonderfully over-the-top even if it’s completely overstuffed, whereas Jane Got a Gun is far too rote.

Director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior, Pride & Glory) released two films in 2016, and out of sheer coincidence, I saw them on back-to-back days. Jane Got a Gun recently popped on Netflix, after a considerable period in development hell and two years on a shelf. The Accountant is currently finishing it’s theatrical run. Neither film is a tour-de-force, nor an interesting enough failure, to warrant a full essay each. Both fail to rise above problems in their plotting and rely far too much on flashback storytelling, but The Accountant’s plotting is wonderfully over-the-top even if it’s completely overstuffed, whereas Jane Got a Gun is far too rote.

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From it’s title, Jane Got a Gun announces itself as a feminist revisionist Western where Natalie Portman gets to deliver some frontier justice. Indeed, it starts out promisingly enough, with Jane’s husband Ham (Noah Emmerich) arriving back at the homestead full of bullets and barely alive, rambling about the Bishop gang, led by a mustachioed and otherwise weirdly indistinct Ewan McGregor,  being angry and on their way. Jane enlists the help of her ex-lover Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), and…immediately stops having much agency in her own story. Dan takes charge, flashbacks tell us how Ham saved Jane from Bishop in the past, and Jane herself gets lost in the shuffle. It’s not a terribly exciting shuffle either, with the action heavily backloaded as both the flashback and present-day storylines reach near-simultaneous conclusions. Noah Emmerich’s Ham is really the only character who makes much of an impression (aside from a quick nasty appearance by Rodrigo Santoro), and the climax of his flashback’s arc gives us perhaps the only memorable scene of the film. There’s potential here, but it never goes to the level of camp it’s title so richly deserves (despite the aforementioned Ewan McGregor stache), and falls flat because of it.

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The camp appeal of The Accountant is clearly on display, as it essentially answers the age-old question of “What if Rain Man was a badass?” Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, a high-functioning autistic man who works as an accountant for criminal organizations and also can take on five armed henchmen when the need arises. It’s not particularly PC, but it never makes Wolff the butt of the joke. It recognizes that his condition is serious, but doesn’t rely on that as his only character trait, much to the credit of the script and Affleck’s low-key performance. However, the two sides of his criminal activities never quite gel completely, and the action scenes aren’t particularly well choreographed. The movie also runs a bit too long at 130 minutes, mostly because it keeps throwing in characters and flashbacks ad nauseum. While the flashbacks provide necessary context for Wolff’s odd combination of traits, far too much time is spent with a pair of mostly disconnected treasury agents. There’s a sense that the movie was throwing whatever it could at the script, although it doesn’t usually translate to a particularly wacky presentation. However, the characters and plot are interesting enough to make the movie immensely satisfying. Helpfully, while the movie is overstuffed, it’s stuffed to the brim with distinctive character actors, from JK Simmons to Jeffrey Tambor to John Lithgow to Jean Smart, who make even the most ancillary moments watchable. The Accountant is far from great, but it’s a neat take on the type of corporate-minded action movie the dominated the 90s that at least breaks the sequel trend effectively. It’s a shame that it just doesn’t stick the landing, throwing on more and more convolution rather than providing a satisfying capper.

Jane Got a Gun (2016)
Grade: D+
Dir. Gavin O’Connor
Starring Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Noah Emmerich, and Ewan McGregor
Rotten Tomatoes (40%)

The Accountant (2016)
Grade: C+
Dir. Gavin O’Connor
Starring Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, Jon Bernthal, and J.K. Simmons
Rotten Tomatoes (51%)

Comments:

  • The Accountant SPOILERS: So Jon Bernthal being Wolff’s little brother grown up has to be the most obvious twist ever, right? They didn’t foreshadow it as far as I can tell, but the laws of character usage economics and the lack of alternative grown-up Affleck brothers and other inexplicability of Bernthal’s screentime confirmed it a full hour-and-a-half before the movie finally did.