TWIM Reviews: Nocturnal Animals (with a Reintroduction)

Whatever happened to that film critic?

You know, the one who sounds like he has a hand-bound copy of the OED stuffed up his backside? The one who loves to hate on big blockbuster movies because he’s intelligent. That one who says more terrible stuff about films than some people say about 20th Century dictators?

Well…this colossal idiot thought about putting the brakes on. The last time I posted anything on this magical page was in the midst of starting a new job, as well as preparing to start a three-to-four year process of debt accumulation that is British university. And, to be honest, I didn’t think much of it at the time: I thought to myself that if I did let TWIM fall by the wayside (which seemed to be the only thing I could do what with my sudden commitments), it probably wouldn’t be missed, and it could lurk away into the black hole of the modern internet, left there to never be found. However, what I didn’t account for was how much the people who’ve read this blog these past few months have actually enjoyed it, including myself: it’s a strange thing to have people define you by what you write about terrible movies, but that’s the way the world has played out in recent weeks. I’ve had compliments from friends, family, even random people at university dorm parties. TWIM has been read on every single continent, by people in more than 50 countries. My review of The Angry Birds Movie became surprisingly popular in Nigeria. And these past couple of weeks, I’ve taken stock and realized: you know what, I don’t mind having this old thing. And my absence probably led to the Donald Trump presidency. So to all those, like me, who are currently seeking therapy for this sudden turn of events, I feel like I owe you something (stop James. you’re making yourself too important you narcissist).

So, as you will probably have astutely observed by now, I am here to announce my not-so-long awaited (or awaited at all for that matter) return to the cutthroat, dramatic and most likely profane world that is film blogging. Frankly, the film industry probably had its easiest two months in some time, what with me not striking movies down at every turn, finding every pressure point and deformity and exploiting it for all its worth like the diseased vultures we film critics (supposedly, and in the twisted mind of Gods Of Egypt director Alex Proyas) are. But now, like the first dawn of a polar winter, a new Oscar race is upon us: a new year of great movies, great directors, and the inevitable shut-out of any nominations for minorities. And I couldn’t stand by, what with all this to come in the next few months, as well as the quiet and inevitable releases of absolutely terrible movies, which are the reviews that i know for a fact you’re all waiting for.

So let me reintroduce myself. My name is James Stephenson, and I love movies to the point of being mentally unstable, no matter how much I might look like I hate them. I’ve invested more money into cinema tickets than I have material possessions. While other moviegoers can’t bring themselves to rip a movie to shreds, I scythe my way through poor stories, cut my way through bad characters, walk over bad writers and destroy bad direction. My favourite film is 2001: A Space Odyssey. I work in an office supply store. My perfect day would be spent out on a beach as the sun goes down. I’m not sure if I’ve created this blog for myself to get exposure, or just to scream in a way that doesn’t harm anyone. And in the end, you can scream back at me for anything I might say that you think is utter rubbish. Either way, this is the prick that writes TWIM, and he is proud to say that he is, above anything else, a movie reviewer. So, let’s review a movie.


Dir, Script. Tom Ford

Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson

Plot: An incredibly successful gallery owner (Adams) has her beautifully colour-coordinated and Greek God-populated world shattered by the arrival of her ex-husband’s (Gyllenhaal) novel, which is dedicated to her.

On Friday, November 4th, in a small and tatty screen in an ODEON cinema, I fell in love.

I fell in love with a dream – some kind of breathtaking, sensory, staggering fever of a dream where beautiful compositions and stunning performances ran free, to be appreciated by the faux-intellectual movie reviewers of which I confess wholeheartedly to being. An absorbing, engrossing vision of a film; a brutal contemporary Western on the one hand, with some of the tensest scenes you’re ever likely to find, and on the other an adept and incisive study of what happens to us when we let the wrong people go. That Friday night, in the darkness, with the sounds of Doctor Strange‘s ludicrous visual effects bleeding through the left-side wall, the discarded remnants of some kind of popcorn war to my right and an audience all around me held captive by the screen in front of them, I fell in love with a movie called Nocturnal Animals.

Five nominations. No wins. Amy Adams is out for the kill. 

In a fair and just world (i.e. one which I am all-powerful), Nocturnal Animals wouldn’t just have forcefully stamped his name on Oscar ballots all around Hollywood in the coming months, but have ignited through them with its sheer intensity. To say the touch-paper has been lit on the 2016 Oscar battle is an understatement – this film, written and directed by fashion wonder-man Tom Ford with such a skill that implies his first career was a colossal mistake, has taken the toys from the prestige pictures’s prams, ran up the stairs and shouted ‘come and get me’ whilst blowing a raspberry. As you may have gathered, I thought Nocturnal Animals was particularly good. Brilliant, really: a biting psychological thriller with intersecting narratives, Tom Ford’s long-awaited follow-up to his promising debut A Single Man delivers in all the right areas, as well as those you couldn’t possibly have thought about.

For a start, this movie is a vision to behold. Nocturnal Animals is breathtaking to look at and painstakingly constructed. Every little detail in every frame, all composed by Seamus McGarvey in a cinematographic tour de force worthy of awards attention in any year, feels deliberate and important as well. Nocturnal Animals tells the story of Susan Morrow, a successful-yet-hollow member of the Los Angeles art world played deliciously by a dark-lipsticked Amy Adams, whose troubled relationship with her chiselled beyond human comprehension husband (Armie Hammer, putting up tents the world over this winter if you catch my drift) – this is a Tom Ford movie, what did you expect – is causing her to effectively doubt what her life has become. Staging these images of stunning, eye-watering wealth, Ford takes plenty of cues from Hitchcock here, not only from Abel Korzeniowski’s alluring and tense score, but from the fantastic shadows at work. It’s a difficult task making an audience sympathetic with somebody who isn’t happy with having a bathtub the size of a lake and transparent glass all around, but Ford somehow manages it: Adams’s excellent and subtle performance doesn’t do the film any harm either.

Woman wears heavy eyeliner – a life on the rails, in the language of fashionista Tom Ford

But, of course, this is just one of the three narratives at work in Nocturnal Animals: not only is there some wonderful flashbacks detailing Susan’s marriage with her ex-husband (a clean shaven, too cute for his own good Jake Gyllenhaal), but the ex-husband in question has written his first novel (from which the film takes its title), and sent the manuscript to Susan, and as she reads it, we see it with our own eyes. It’s not reinventing the wheel or anything, granted: films within films and ‘meta-texts’ or whatever you may call them have been around for a fair while, but often they feel far less real than the main story. Not so here. We are flung without warning into the barren Texan desert, where Tony Hastings (a not-so-clean shaven Jake Gyllenhaal, in a dual role), along with his wife (Isla Fisher, a deliberate dead-ringer for Amy Adams) and their daughter, are terrorised by a group of Texan rednecks, led by an unrecognisable Aaron Taylor-Johnson, putting in a career-best performance. The world of the novel is, as you can probably imagine, perfectly juxtaposed with the homogenised, minimalist bubble that Adams finds herself increasingly trapped within, and is so visceral I wouldn’t recommend anyone with high blood pressure going to watch this movie (although I am tabling whether its worth risking your life to go and see Nocturnal Animals – I’m definitely considering that argument). It’s opening, a frighteningly tense car-chase-cum-psychological terror trap, is not only edge-of-your-seat’s-edge-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff-on-the-edge-of-the-universe stuff, but has a truly harrowing pay-off.

On the set of Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal lost his razor – his search continues

And yet, with all of my swooning over the beautiful cinematography, Shane Valentino’s appealing production design and the superb editing by Joan Sobel (quick sidenote: yes, I know I’m deliberately shoe-horning all the technical people in here and I know it doesn’t read incredibly, but Nocturnal Animals is one of the best technically made films I think I’ve ever seen: everyone deserves to be celebrated), its the acting and the writing that makes all of this work. I’ve already touched on Adams’s terrific work, but the acting within the fictional world of the novel is more brilliant still. Taylor-Johnson really is fantastic as the antagonistic Ray (although he could have been a shade more subtle), Jake Gyllenhaal gives us the type of performance that has established him as one of the best actors in the world right now, simultaneously charming and sensitive in the role of Adams’s ex-husband and determined, strong but vulnerable as the tortured Tony. But I haven’t even mentioned the film’s stand-out performance yet: Michael Shannon is Academy Award worthy here. Period. As a rough-as-nails detective who helps Tony in his plight, Shannon is as enigmatic as he is believable. It’s the type of supporting performance, in my eyes, that defines a career: I don’t want to give too much away, but if you go and see this (which, if you haven’t interpreted my words even now, you definitely should) you will know exactly what I mean.

Are there drawbacks? Definitely. Nocturnal Animals hasn’t quite been getting all-around lavish praise across the board as much as I feel it should be, and I can see why: some have said that the film has been so obsessively stylised that its suffocating the plot, and while I admit that everything within the movie is incredibly meticulous, and put there for a reason, it only adds to what is at its heart a gripping story about engrossing characters, which is after all what great stories have always been forged on. What I will say is that there are moments where Ford’s obsession with image (being a fashion designer, I’ll let him have that one) does get in the way; take the film’s opening, which is certainly striking, but feels a little unnecessary. There’s also scarcely little Amy Adams to sink my teeth into – while she does make her appearance extremely memorable of course, I couldn’t help but want a little more of her.

Come on – that moustache is Oscar-worthy…also, I WILL FIND HIM

But in the grand framework that Ford has created here, its practically irrelevant. Fact of the matter is, Nocturnal Animals is a remarkable, remarkable piece of cinema. All the way to its end, this movie blew me away – it blew through any expectation I had, any ceiling I gave it. I loved this film: I respect its errors, and its certainly not a perfect movie. It’s a little too cold if you ask me, slightly too remote, although I think the spellbinding performances by pretty much the entire cast and especially the technical crew more than make up for it. I never wanted Nocturnal Animals to end…but I knew that it had to. And when it did, when that sudden and silent gut-punch of an ending arrived and threw me and the rest of that audience out of its all-encompassing grasp – I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. I left the cinema screen, went out into the cold and the rain, and immediately wanted to get back in there.

RATING: 3.5/4

BEST WATCHED: Immediately – be there now. Teleport yourself. Sneak in. Any way will do. Just go.


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