A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The traditional concept of masculinity varies considerably from culture to culture and context to context. The underlying subtext, however, can be prescribed by looking at a patriarchal society defined by rigid hierarchies and austere roles it prescribes to certain groups of individuals. As a man, the traditional construct of masculinity has been enough of a flexible institution to grow roots around the world, entrenching itself from the personal to the professional with a repugnant abandon. What society expects from men, how men feel about what society expects from them, and critically, how they respond to those expectations are what form the thematic skeleton of Tom Ford’s second feature film. Ford isn’t specifically concerned with what traditional masculinity is, but rather he desires to analyze what traditional masculinity does to men of different ilk. What does it mean to be the societal definition of what a man is? What does it mean to try and fit the societal definition when you are not the type of man it describes? What does it mean if you fit that ideal of what a man should be, how he should behave? In which aspect of that existence are you losing the most? How are the women in your life being affected by how you fit into that definition, how you don’t, and what the charge is on their existence to make up for that difference? Nocturnal Animals is obsessed with those questions. Its thematic exploration of that theme never feels overtly heavy-handed, however, and perhaps that’s because the existence of toxic masculinity is undeniably ubiquitous. Anyone with an understanding of this issue knows men who behave in the various fashions depicted on screen and perhaps can even see those aspects of their existence exhibited with such a casually chilling understanding that it may become frightening.
Nocturnal Animals could be described as being composed of beautiful people donning gorgeous clothing while they ruminate in isolation amidst walls of glass. The film is thankfully more complex and intricate than that, making considerably intelligent usage of a bright sense of sheen, often delving into the depth of despair barely hidden beneath the veneer of it all. That despair is linked inherently to the idea and often giant question mark of what it means to be happy, what it takes to achieve whatever that standard for happiness is, and how those expectations of masculinity tie into that idea. The plot of Nocturnal Animals is relatively straightforward but Ford’s tense misdirections and tight filmmaking style help the film feel elevated above it’s bare bones plot and find a thrilling sense of extreme discomfort, an eerie silence broken by the loud gunshot or the sublime eargasm created by Abel Korzeniowski’s score. The opening sequence, however, is anything but silent, focusing on the slow-motion dancing rhythms of women who don’t fit the societal markers for what physical beauty is. Their ecstasy is matched in symbolism by the sparklers in their hand. It’s an opening sequence designed to shock general expectations, its full metaphorical meaning coming to light when it reveals that the exhibition was planned by a successful art gallery owner named Susan Morrow (a great Amy Adams). Susan is framed as being intensely isolated amidst the slowly emptying art show, her stark black dress seemingly shining amidst the white walls of the art gallery. Her isolation is a sense of being at that juncture, a part of her that she seemingly can’t escape. She arrives home and wakes up to find her obviously philandering husband (a smarmy Armie Hammer) planning another work trip to New York on a Saturday. She’s unhappy and fundamentally, by what it appears the film is saying, following expectations of what her family and society told her she ought to be.
Susan was expected by her mother to become something that wasn’t strictly an artist, even if that art was the pathway that spoke the most to her, the pathway where she felt the most alive. But Susan was a realist and it is frankly extremely difficult to argue with her rationale that she has to find something more financially feasible to do with her life. The romanticism was something she couldn’t hold onto and there are many of us who find ourselves in that position of wanting some semblance of structure while not being sure if the route that seems the most rewarding to take would turn out to be the most rewarding one after all. She struggled between defining her desires as romantic at all, a moniker her mother was more than willing to use in defining the man she had fallen in love with. Her mother in her mind exemplified then individual who meets all of society’s expectations and has fallen into the realm of being cold, isolated, and unfeeling. She went as far as completely ostracizing her gay son because his homosexuality defied the idea of what a traditional man should be, the kind she wanted for her daughter. Susan scoffs at that ostracizing, but her mother’s belief in the right type of man is so prevalent in society that it is difficult for Susan to truly escape from its grasp. That relationship with Edward Sheffield (a solid Jake Gyllenhaal) ends as Susan realizes that she simply couldn’t be with a directionless man, that she wanted someone who had a semblance of a future at hand. Nineteen years later, Edward sends her a copy of his manuscript entitled Nocturnal Animals. Susan pauses, remembering that Edward used to call her that when she was together because she could rarely find it in her to get enough sleep. Hesitantly, she opens the manuscript at a vulnerable moment and she finds in its pages a disturbing manifestation on a man who couldn’t achieve the masculinity that society expected and the toxicity that it unleashed.
The novel is about a man named Tony Hastings, whose wife and daughter were kidnapped on the road, raped, and killed. Tony is understandably distraught and upset but as much anger as he finds towards the men who were responsible for the violent crime, he finds himself equally infuriated that he wasn’t able to protect them. As a novel, Edward’s work is notably hackneyed and a wonder that it was published at all. As a metaphor for how Edward viewed his own self after his relationship with Susan fell apart, it speaks volumes about how difficult men often find it to look at those circumstances in a mature, logical fashion. The emotional turmoil can’t be denied, but to hold onto that sense of detachment and suffering of masculine expectations for nineteen years is incredibly toxic. It consumed Edward and undoubtedly affected his relationships to a considerable degree and that effect shows up in the pettiness he so thoroughly espoused in the final scene. It’s a perfect final shot, even if the sense of the ending feeling anticlimactic is a bit difficult to shake. The aforementioned score from Korzeniowksi is thoroughly sublime, giving the film an effect that at times says that it is superior to the film itself. Ford’s direction is sharp and assured, cutting through angles as sharply as the emotional beats are driving wedges between his characters. The characterizations of some of those characters feels thin and enshrined within nothing more than stereotypes, but otherwise the film knocks that category out the park. The acting from Adams and Michael Shannon in particular elevates the at-times detached material and give it a gravitas and depth that may not exist on the page. The pacing at times is lackadaisical, especially during the first deception of Edward’s novel on screen, which is a scene that just drags (although Ford does a great job of making the reality and fiction feel simultaneously intertwined and distinct). Ford drives forth enough tension for Nocturnal Animals to feel as gripping as the holds its characters try to maintain on the versions of themselves they feel they need to believe, holds that slip away faster as their grips become tighter.
Title: Nocturnal Animals
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Tom Ford
Produced by: Tom Ford, Robert Salerno
Screenplay by: Tom Ford
Based on: Tony and Susan by Austin Wright
Story by: Image
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen
Music by: Abel Korzeniowski
Cinematography by: Seamus McGarvey
Edited by: Joan Sobel
Production Company(s): Fade to Black
Distributed by: Focus Features
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Dates: November 18, 2016 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Collider; Credit: Merrick Morton/Focus Features