2017.44: Nocturnal Animals (2016)
This film may not be perfect, and it may not completely reach for what it strives for, but goodness me, I have to salute the ambition behind it, which is a rare enough thing to find in film these days. If anything it is this very ambition that may undermine it- crafted like a work of art as much as a mainstream movie, the film is exquisitely shot and framed but there’s a sterile coldness to much of it -likely deliberate- that distances the viewer from it (although it’s certainly not as emotionally detached as a Christopher Nolan film, say). Just getting through the main title sequence would be too much for some (and what it even adds to the film, or says, is a matter of conjecture).
Suffice to say that this film is no less than a modern-day Vertigo; a romantic, psychological thriller laced with awful sadness, regrets and loneliness that may leave you thinking about it for days. To complain that it doesn’t reach the heights of Vertigo (sic) is of course nonsense- Vertigo is a timeless classic that we may never see the likes of again. At least Nocturnal Animals aims high enough to deserve comparison – a fine compliment as it is.
Nocturnal Animals is structured as a film within a film within a film- a fascinating puzzle to explore and obtain meaning from. In a sterile environment of empty spaces, Amy Adams is Susan, who lives a life of wealth and comfort as an art dealer, with a luxury home, beautiful (if increasingly distant) husband, servants and personal assistants. She seems to have it all- but seems to be realising she lacks fulfillment. A package arrives one morning containing the proof copy of a book written by her ex-husband, Edward, entitled Nocturnal Animals, which is dedicated to her. Having a quiet weekend whilst her husband leaves on business to New York (we soon learn this is a cover for his affair with a mistress), Susan reads the book, and we witness her minds-eye picture of the book as a film within the film. This book/film is a noir-ish pulp potboiler of tragedy and revenge in which she pictures her husband as the protagonist and her younger self as his wife. Bookended throughout all of this are her recollections, triggered by reading the book, of her past relationship with her husband -how they met, their affair and how their marriage painfully (for him) ended, a timeline which is almost third film in itself. The difficulty in weaving these three timelines so well, so each informs and reveals things about the others, is something that deserves some consideration, and it’s quite a feat that it works so well and that we always seem aware of ‘when’ things are happening, what is real and what is the book’s fiction. Actually, now that I think about it, that ‘real’ is pretty much subjective in itself, as the reality is Susan’s reality, the past as she sees it, just as the book is how Susan sees that. Revelations slowly unfold until we arrive at a painful finale that is both discomforting, frustrating and yet somehow perfect. There is a revenge in the real-world just as there is in the novel.
Amy Adams. What can I say? Another amazing performance which, like the same years Arrival, deserved but somehow didn’t get a nomination. Perhaps there is some truth to the theory that having two deserving performances actually did her a disservice by spitting her vote? Nonetheless these two films have raised her to some kind of remarkable level of craft and leave me keenly anticipating any film she appears in.
Special mention to Abel Korzeniowski’s beautiful, soulful score- as major a character in this film as Herrmann’s score is to Vertigo, performing much the same function. It’s a haunting work that is sparse but incredibly powerful. Korzeniowski is some kind of genius at this kind of stuff, whose romantic, haunting and yearning music served similar duties in the excellent Penny Dreadful tv series. It reminds me of John Barry as well as Herrmann. If only this quality of music was the norm and not the exception to film-scoring these days! This is of the quality we used to get in the 1970s, richly emotional, layered scoring. The film would be much lesser without it.