Nocturnal Animals (2016)

2017 #55
Tom Ford | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Nocturnal Animals

In her second Oscar-worthy role of 2016 that didn’t even get nominated, Amy Adams plays rich art gallery owner Susan, who out of the blue receives a package from her ex-lover Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) containing an advance copy of his debut novel, which he’s dedicated to her. With the weekend alone to herself, Susan reads the novel — in which the family of Tony (Gyllenhaal again), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are terrorised by a gang led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), before copper Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) helps them seek justice/revenge — in the process reliving memories of her tumultuous former relationship.

At first the plot of Edward’s novel seems more interesting than the framing narrative that contains it — after all, you’re pitching a tense thriller against a woman reading a book while she remembers falling for a guy. But as it becomes clear that the novel is just a pulpy thriller, and as the flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s history reveal a mystery of their own, the balance begins to shift. The question is not really “why is the book dedicated to Susan”, because she clearly knows that from very early on. Instead, the quandary for the viewer is: what exactly did she do that merits this lurid tale being her… what? Punishment, maybe?

Although the story is black as night, it’s a beautifully constructed film — as you might expect from someone with a background in design like writer-director Tom Ford. It’s not just the visually appealing work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey or the film’s various designers that is so striking, though. The three narrative strands are expertly handled. There’s never any doubt about which is which, even when Ford at times intercuts between all three in one sequence, but he hasn’t resorted to simplistic tricks (like vastly different colour grading, say) to pull that off. It’s subtler, and more effective, than that.

Shocking reading

To guide the characters through his sombre narratives, Ford has put together a helluva cast. Of course there’s the primaries — Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon, and Taylor-Johnson are all superb — but turning up for just a scene or two are the likes of Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, and Jena Malone, any of whom could be leads in their own right. It does make it slightly disconcerting when you assume someone that recognisable will turn up again later and then they don’t, but I suppose that just sits with the generally unsettling tone of the film.

Taking its artfulness to heart, some people have dismissed the film as being no more than an artily-dressed-up simplistic revenge story. Personally, I think the point of the story-within-the-story is to be simplistic. I don’t think Edward is meant to be a very good writer, and that’s why he’s produced a very pulpy novel. What matters is the effect this bluntly allegorical piece of trash storytelling has on the person it’s primarily aimed at — i.e. Susan. And there’s still ambiguity for the audience in just what Susan is interpreting from the novel. I mean, Edward is Tony, that’s obvious; and maybe he’s Bobby, too; and Susan must be Laura… but who is Ray? Is Ray just the concept of what happened between them made flesh? Or maybe Susan is actually Ray? Or perhaps Edward is Ray too? Or perhaps it’s something else entirely, I don’t know.

Who's who?

Equally ambiguous is the ending to the present-day framing narrative, but I’m not sure I have much to add to that other than what you can easily find online, so no spoilers here. Other than to say I think the main plot points are all solved (the story-within-the-story wraps up, and how it mirrors the characters’ history has been revealed), but there are some open-ended points that the viewer choose how to read as they see fit.

Nocturnal Animals has been a pretty divisive film. Lots of people compare it to last year’s even more controversial The Neon Demon, in one way or another — I’ve seen both “at least it’s better than…” and “it would make a good double bill with…” Well, I really ought to get round to that, then, because I admired Nocturnal Animals very much. It’s a beautiful movie about ugly deeds and ugly thoughts.

5 out of 5

Nocturnal Animals is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Midnight Special (2016)

2016 #145
Jeff Nichols | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Greece / English | 12 / PG-13

Midnight SpecialI’m not sure I’d even heard the name Jeff Nichols before Midnight Special came along, at which point most of the gushing reviews that followed seemed to mention him with cult-like reverence. He’s the writer and director, by the way, for anyone still in the dark, and unbeknownst to me (and, I rather suspect, most people outside certain cinephile circles) he’d amassed something of a following over his first three movies (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, two of which I’d at least heard of). It’s kind of odd to feel like everyone else loves this guy and has been eagerly anticipating his next work and is now discussing how it chimes with his existing canon, when you’ve not even heard of him.

Anyway, his latest film* has a plot that makes me want to dub it Starman: A World Beyond… though that might indicate something about the ending, so, uh, shh! Anyway, the story concerns a dad (Michael Shannon) who’s kidnapped his son (Jaeden Lieberher) from some kind of cult, and is now on the run from both the authorities and the cultists who want the kid back. All the furore stems from the fact that the kid has some kind of special abilities, one of which has given them a destination to head for and time to be there…

The story’s style has made a comparison to Spielberg the go-to, not only for reviewers but for the writer-director himself, who’s labelled the film an homage to E.T. and Close Encounters. You can see that influence, certainly, but it lacks the effortless charm that Spielberg brings to his movies. If this is Spielberg, it’s by way of more indie arthouse fare. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. You could argue that it’s more refreshing than any of the I want to believestraight-up Spielberg rehashes we’ve seen over the past four decades; conversely, a strand of wilful obscurity means it may be ultimately less satisfying. Again, some people derive satisfaction explicitly from that lack of resolution or explanation, while others will find it damagingly frustrating. Even more than Spielberg, I felt the thing most evoked by this structure was The X Files: intriguing sci-fi mysteries that eventually lead to semi-reveals which don’t quite satisfy in themselves in part because they’re trying very hard to remain open-ended.

In that regard, it’s arguably a little too woolly on its sci-fi elements, and executes the chase-thriller aspect of its plot too slowly, to be fully considered a genre movie; but it’s also too indistinct on its cast to fully convince as a character-driven drama. You can certainly begin to infer some things about what their exact motivations are, what they’re thinking and feeling and why they’re doing what they do, but I’m not sure if it’s actually there or if I’m endeavouring to build something out of the little that we’re given. That said, if I’m prepared to do Zack Snyder the courtesy of reading something into his work that may or may not be there (cf. Sucker Punch), then Jeff Nichols deserves at least the same level of kindness. But for the kind of movie whose style makes it seem like it should be about Character or Theme over more genre- and/or narrative-focused concerns, it feels there’s an awful lot of attention paid to plot over anything else. Speaking as a fan of sci-fi and high-concepts and B-thrillers and blockbusters, I actually think I’d’ve liked it more if it toned down the sci-fi and the plot, and instead focused on the characters’ soul-searching and the unusual family dynamics.

That said, there’s some great imagery. Mainly the sci-fi stuff at the end — I don’t think it’s unfair to describe most of the movie as looking solidly unremarkable, but the climax is pretty darn good. However, I’ve read many reviews that criticise the effects. Are we not past that yet? Especially when it comes to a film of this budget and scale. Nuclear familyI thought they perfectly conveyed what they were intending to convey — usually, just a kind of otherworldly light. It’s not like it’s even over-stretching its means, like so many network TV series or Sharknado-esque movies do when they try to emulate a $200 million blockbuster on a TV budget. If you’re expecting some grand CGI, maybe go watch one of those $200 million blockbusters instead of an $18 million drama.

Midnight Special seems to provoke a wide range of responses — I mean, you can say that about most films, ultimately; but some more so than others, and skimming across reviews and comments online, this is definitely one of them. Fans of American indie-ish drama-driven semi-genre movies, or of more thoughtful science-fiction, will surely want to give it a go, but how much you’ll connect with its characters or its ideas seems to be a roll of the dice. I liked it well enough, but I don’t remember seeing any particular indication of what’s inspired the notion that we should all be fawning over Jeff Nichols as the best auteur to happen to cinema since sliced bread. (Sliced bread’s early movies were great, weren’t they?)

3 out of 5

Midnight Special is on Sky Cinema from today.

* In a coincidental similarity to when I started viewing the work of another much-hailed star-to-be indie director (Ben Wheatley), I’m beginning with his fourth film. ^

Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

2015 #5
Marc Forster | 124 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English, Arabic & Acholi | 15 / R

Machine Gun PreacherBetween the mega-hits of Quantum of Solace and World War Z, Marc Forster directed this poorly-received ultra-flop. It’s based on the true story of Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), a drug-addicted violence-prone biker thug, who finds God, goes legit as a construction worker, travels to war-torn Sudan as part of a Christian mission, and ends up becoming obsessed with trying to save kids there. His old skills begin to come to the fore as he has to battle local militia to protect his work, earning him the titular nickname.

As a film, it feels like a true story, but in a bad way: poorly structured, unfocused and, as a result, sluggish and awkwardly paced. Subplots meander around, coming and going at will, contributing very little to the overall effect. Some people get annoyed when movies change the facts of history to suit their purpose, but it’s done for a reason: this isn’t a documentary about what actually happened, it’s a narrative fiction inspired by it. You don’t have to betray the spirit of the truth even, just make it function as a story: focus on the relevant parts, rather than just tossing in every event; structure said events with a rising scale of action, rather than tossing it together willy-nilly with barely an ending to reach.

Great white saviourThe problem with the last point is that, in real life, Sam is still over there, still doing the same thing, while conflicts rage on. But this is a film — you need to find some kind of conclusion. The makers have tried, but its an incredibly half-arsed climax; less a resolution to the entire story and more Sam having learnt one lesson from something that went wrong a little earlier.

Forster’s direction is uninteresting; strikingly workmanlike, even. Despite earning several major awards nominations for Finding Neverland and employing some interesting visual tricks for Stranger Than Fiction, his Bourne-copying Bond film and the standard blockbuster-ness of his zombie epic perhaps suggest he is a little bit of a gun-for-hire. Thematically, he wants to have his cake and eat it: the film both condemns Sam’s violent ways, very nearly almost touching on an interesting theme of him actually being completely unchanged (he’s just found a better/more acceptable outlet for his violence); but it backs out of that pretty speedily, because it also wants him to be a hero, ultimately trying to present that he is as its final summary.

The film on the whole is too preachy, both about Christianity and the situation in Africa. It doesn’t feel like a professional medium-budget movie made by experienced filmmakers with a name cast, but instead like one of those specialist Christian movies, Preacher(gun)manmashed together with a polemical charity documentary about Africa, and then with some Rambo action sequences grafted on for good measure. Each of those genres manage to find their own audiences — usually ones so interested in the topic that they’ll switch off any critical filters they may (or may not) possess — but I’m not sure there’s much crossover between them, and the combination certainly doesn’t work for anyone with taste.

The real-life story is undoubtedly interesting, and the problems in Sudan are undoubtedly troubling, but that doesn’t automatically confer quality on a fictionalised film. It feels like the fact the tale was fundamentally interesting and Important led a lot of people involved to coast, like it was too good a narrative not to automatically produce a good film. Unfortunately, that’s not how moviemaking works, and while they’ve not produced a bad film per se, it is a strikingly mediocre one.

2 out of 5

Machine Gun Preacher is on Film4 tonight at 11:10pm.