Tag: Michael Shannon

Amsterdam (2022)

Amsterdam (2022)

Lots of quirk, whimsy and smugness, not a lot of interest or dynamism in this satirical mis-fire

Director: David O. Russell

Cast: Christian Bale (Burt Berendsen), Margot Robbie (Valerie Voze), John David Washington (Harold Woodsman), Robert De Niro (General Gil Dillenbeck), Chris Rock (Milton King), Rami Malek (Tom Voze), Anya Taylor-Joy (Libby Voze), Zoe Saldana (Irma St Clair), Mike Myers (Paul Canterbury), Michael Shannon (Henry Norcross), Timothy Olyphant (Tarim Milfax), Andrea Riseborough (Beatrice Vandenheuvel), Taylor Swift (Elizabeth Meekins), Matthias Schoenaerts (Detective Lem Getwiller), Alessandro Nivola (Detective Hiltz), Ed Begley Jnr (General Bill Meekins)

David O Russell’s has made a niche for himself with his ensemble awards-bait films, filled with touches of quirk and offering rich opportunities for eccentric, showy performances from actors. Some of these have walked a fine line between charm and smugness: Amsterdam tips too far over that line. Like American Hustle it’s a twist on a real-life event (opening with a pleased with itself “A lot of this really happened” caption) but, unlike that film, it fails to insert any compelling storyline, settling for a whimsical shaggy-dog story that frequently grinds to a halt for infodumps or lectures.

Set in 1933, just as Roosevelt has taken office, it follows three friends who formed a friendship for life in post-war Amsterdam. They are: wounded veterans doctor Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and lawyer Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) and socialite-artist-turned-nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). Berendsen and Woodsman lost touch with Valerie in the 1920s, but now they are all bought together after the murder of their respected former commander as part of a plot from various nefarious types to overthrow the government in a fascist-inspired coup.

Sounds gripping right? Well, Amsterdam fails to find any urgency in this. In fact, details of this plot and the political context it’s happening in are sprinkled around the film as if Russell kept forgetting what the film was supposed to be about. It’s almost as if he stumbled on an unknown piece of American history – a rumoured coup attempt, thwarted by being denounced by the ex-Marine General approached to lead it (here represented by De Niro’s ramrod straight General Dillenbeck) – but got more and more bored with it the longer he spent on it.

Instead, his real interest is in the faint overtones of Jules et Jim style thruple between Berendsen, Woodsman and Voze (though this is American not French, so any trace of homoeroticism is dispatched, despite the obvious bond between the two men). The most engaging part of the film is the Act two flashback to these three healing, dancing and bonding in post-war Amsterdam, in a “our troubles are behind us” bliss. Even if it’s self-satisfied in its bohemianism.

To be honest, even then, they have an air of smugness behind them. They pass the time singing improvised nonsense songs based on words pulled out of a hat and playfully posing in Valerie’s modernist artwork. Valerie is played with almost enough charm by Robbie for you to overlook she is a standard Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, the sort of babe who pulls shrapnel from bodies to turn it into artistic tea-sets as a commentary on the madness of war. She and Woodsman form a relationship (with the married Berendsen as a sort of – well I’m not sure what, but definitely not a sexual third wheel) and these blissful Amsterdam days are the times of their life. Russell is so keen for us to know it, that all three pop up in short cutaways at key moments to whisper “Amsterdam” direct to the camera, an affectation that fails to deliver the spiritual impact its straining for.

It’s better than the shaggy dog story around the conspiracy that fills the 1930s part of the storyline. This remains so poorly defined, that Bale has to narrate a concluding slideshow of clips and fake newsreel and newspaper coverage to explain what on earth has just happened. The lack of clarity about the stakes – and the general lack of seriousness or urgency anyone treats them with –fails to provide any narrative oomph. Instead, it drifts along from casual meeting to casual meeting, every scene populated with a big-name actor showboating.

There is a lot of showboating in this film. Bale, an actor with an increasingly worrying tendency for funny voices and tics, fully embraces the facially scarred, glass-eye wearing Berendsen, perpetually stooped with a war wound and prone to fainting from pain-killer overuse. It’s a showy, actorly performance with a licence to go OTT. Bale does manage to invest it with an emotional depth and vulnerability, but there’s more than an air of indulgence here.

Most of the rest follow his lead. Malek and Taylor-Joy sink their teeth into a snobby socialite married couple. Rock essentially turns his role as a veteran into a less sweary extension of his stand-up act. Myers and Shannon seize with relish roles as ornithologist spies (is this meant to be a joke about the origins of the James Bond name from the author of a bird-spotting guidebook?) Poor John David Washington ends up feeling flat with his decision to underplay (like he’s in a different movie) and only De Niro really manages to feel like anything other than an actor on holiday.

Russell wants to make a point about the continual corruption of the rich and how their hunger for more power will never be sated. There are some half-hearted attempts at attacking racism, with the ill treatment of black veterans, but it lacks bite or edge. His attempts to draw parallels with Trump are all too clear, but the film largely fails to integrate these ideas into the film. In fact, it ends up relying on voiceover lectures from Bale about dangers to democracy. It ends up like being hectored by an angry socialist after a student revue night.

The film is shot with a series of low angle shots and medium and close ups that eventually made me feel like I was watching it from the bottom of a well. A vague sepia-ish tone is given by Emmanuel Lubezki, but the film looks flat and visually uninteresting (so much so I was stunned to see $80million had somehow been blown on it, despite most of the cast working for scale). It drifts towards a conclusion, without giving us anything human to invest in (as Russell managed so well in Silver Linings Playbook or The Fighter) or providing the sort of caper enjoyment he delivered in American Hustle. Instead, it’s oscillates between smug and dull.

Midnight Special (2016)

Michael Shannon is the loyal dad in Midnight Special

Director: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Michael Shannon (Roy Tomlin), Joel Edgerton (Lucas), Kirsten Dunst (Sarah Tomlin), Adam Driver (Paul Sevier), Jaeden Lieberher (Alton), Sam Shepard (Pastor Calvin Meyer), Bill Camp (Doak), Scott Haze (Levi), Paul Sparks (Agent Miller)

At some point around its original release, someone attached the label “Spielberg-esque” to Midnight Special. I suppose this may be due to its father-son central relationship and its rough similarities to Close Encounters. But it’s a label that does the film no favours. JJ Abrahms would create a Spielberg-esque film, but Jeff Nichols? Pull the other one. Instead Jeff Nichols creates a sci-fi film that wilfully avoids explanations and turns its back as often as it can on any sentimentalism. It’s more like James Cameron crossed with existential philosophy. It certainly won’t be offering up easy entertainment.

Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) is on the run from the law with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), helped only by his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Alton has mysterious powers – glowing eyes, elements of telekinesis and the ability to intercept electrical signals – that have made him a target for everyone from the government to a cult that has kept him under lock and key for years, believing he holds the key to surviving the inevitable apocalypse. Alton has an aversion to sunlight which means our heroes can only travel at night, heading towards a secret location, trying to stay one step ahead of the dangerous figures following them.

Nichols film is almost too elliptical for its own good. But then I think this is partly Nicholls point. He’s looking to subvert a few expectations here. To create a sci-fi, other-world chase movie that’s wrapped itself up in enigmas. Sadly, I think to have enigmas like this become truly engaging, you need to form a connection with the film itself – and Midnight Special fails too much here.

It keeps its cards extremely close to its chest – it only begins to dive into any sort of explanation about what’s going on over halfway into the film, and even then this is kept vague and undefined. There is virtually no exploration given of most of the characters of their backstory, bar a few key points. It’s a chase movie which frequently slows down to a crawl. It’s a science fiction film that’s largely confined to the ‘real’ world. It’s a father-and-son on the run film, which separates these two characters for a large chunk of its runtime. All this makes it very difficult to form an emotional attachment with, in the way you do with, say, Close Encounters or The Terminator (both of which leave traces in this film’s DNA).

Not that I think Nicholls will mind, as this is an attempt to do something different, more of an existential musing on humanity. Its unfortunate that this was exploration of personal regrets and tragedies against a backdrop of earth-shattering sci-fi revelations was done more absorbingly in Arrivalamong others. Compared to that, Nicholls film seems almost a little too pleased with its deep (and in the end slightly empty) mysteries and its opaque characters, many of them defined more by actions and plot functions rather than personality traits.

There’s strong work from Shannon as a father desperate to do the right thing and Lieberher as young boy who becomes calmer and more in control as the film progresses. But we never quite learn enough – or understand enough – about either of them to really invest in their fates.

And without that investment, its hard to worry in the same way about what might happen to them – or to really care about the revelations they are seeking to discover by the films conclusion. The film could counterbalance this if the ideas behind it were fascinating enough. But I am not sure they are. It touches upon questions of faith, parental love, destiny and human nature – but it studies them like they were under a microscope. Ideas are there to be excavated from it, but that doesn’t always make for great story-telling. Take the cult: there are fascinating ideas about the honesty (and pervasions) of faith, contrasting this perhaps with the overwhelming faith the father has in his son’s fate. The film introduces this – and then doesn’t really give it any depth.

It’s a problem all across the film. It’s partly a meditation on human progress and enlightenment – but the film never makes a compelling case or intellectual argument about it. Again there’s some great opportunities here, not least with Adam Driver’s fine performance as a sceptic turning believer – but it even that plotline eventually gets reduced to simply allowing someone to move from A to B for plot purposes. The film – for all the skill it’s made with and the obvious talent of Nicholls – is cold and distant.

And a cold and distant film is eventually going to get that reaction from a lot of its audience. Those who can see its merits, but never engage with it – or care about it – enough to really seek it out.

Loving (2016)

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in a love story that fails to capture fire

Director: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Joel Edgerton (Richard Loving), Ruth Negga (Mildred Loving), Marton Csokas (Sheriff Brooks), Nick Kroll (Bernie Cohen), Michael Shannon (Grey Villet), Terri Abney (Garnet Jeter), Alano Miller (Raymond Green), Bill Camp (Frank Beazley)

Imagine the idea of the state dictating whom you could and couldn’t marry. This was the predicament Richard and Mildred Loving found themselves in, when the appalling segregationist policies of America in the 1950s saw them arrested for the crime of a white man marrying a black woman. Over time, especially from the 60s onwards, their case was seized upon by Civil Rights movements as a possible cause celebre for repealing many of the worst excesses of laws against mixed-race marriages. But the Lovings themselves remained quiet, private and determined to lead as normal a life as possible, while others fought this battle for them in the court.

Jeff Nichols’ film is full of affection, empathy and regard for these very everyday, normal people. What it is not – for all the skill of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga’s performances in the leads – is a film that manages to raise any real interest at all. This is a frequently slow-moving story that manages to drain any drama out of what should be a really dramatic story.

Racial inequality is the sort of topic that desperately should be throwing up rage and anger. Imagine Spike Lee tackling this sort of content. Loving settles instead for being a polite, even rather patronising homage to the quiet lack of drive and energy in Richard Loving (in particular). The sort of film that honours his decision to, essentially, get involved as little as possible in the case, to avoid engaging as much as he can in the wider implications their legal battle has for the nation and to studiously resist any attempts to get either side involved in it.

This may be great for reality, but it’s strikingly poor drama. You feel that a drama that focused instead on those actively campaigning for the rights for equal marriage rights to be recognised, the ones who actually fought these battles in court and brought energy and fire to the debate might be a more interesting film. Instead this settles for being a film about regular, not special people, while around the edges of their lives far more interesting events and actions are constantly taking place. 

There are some things to admire in the making of the film – Nichols’ brings his usual poetic skill to it – but this is a glacially paced, unabsorbing, overlong film that manages to make a scintillating and passionate subject as dull as dish water. Negga and Edgerton both do fine jobs – and clearly really admire the everyday nature of their characters – but these softly spoken, unengaged people to whom events happen, but who never take a stand of any sort of try and shape these events or set the direction of their own life, slowly switches the audience off.

Where is the fire here? Nichols’ film instead tries to become a tribute to the honesty of the working man, to Richard’s everyday values, simple, homespun viewpoints. It hails his lack of education (the film dances around where on the education spectrum Richard would be placed today), social awareness or even opinions as something which somehow makes him more “real” than anything else. This attitude, to be honest, becomes both trying and even a little patronising in its bluntness and sense of importance.

Just in case we are ever in danger of ever forgetting that he is a working man, the film can’t go longer than about five minutes without showing Richard laying some bricks. Mildred gets a little more engagement with the social issues of the 1960s – and the film does a good job of suggesting that she was a woman of considerably more hinterland than her husband, but who loyally followed his lead in the world. But neither of them come into focus as truly engaging characters. And because they are so hard to invest in, because the story and their film gives us so little personality for either of them to latch onto,  in the end you don’t get as fired up by the injustice of their case as you should do.

Instead you are left thinking at the end that this sort of racism is bad because, well, we know it was at the start. Following the story of two basically boring people who were in the right place at the right time to become the face of overturning some terrible laws, doesn’t make them interesting and doesn’t make a story that focuses on their lives at the cost of any of the wider issues or actual battles that were being fought, suddenly interesting either.

Knives Out (2019)

Daniel Craig investigates in Rian Johnson’s amusing Christie-pastiche Knives Out

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daniel Craig (Benoit Blanc), Chris Evans (Random Drysdale), Ana de Armas (Marta Cabrera), Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda Drysdale), Michael Shannon (Walt Thrombey), Don Johnson (Richard Drysdale), Toni Collette (Joni Thrombrey), Lakeith Stanfield (Lt. Elliot), Katherine Langford (Meg Thrombey), Jaeden Martell (Jacob Thrombey), Christopher Plummer (Harlan Thrombey), Noah Segan (Trooper Wagner), Frank Oz (Alan Stevens)

Rian Johnson’s film CV is full of interesting (and affectionate) twists on assorted genre films. While many will be most familiar with his controversial and iconoclastic Star Wars film The Last Jedi, Knives Outfits more neatly in with his imaginative twist on time-travel Looper and, most tellingly, his film-noir high-school thriller Brick. Knives Out plays into Johnson’s love of old-school, all-star, Agatha Christie style murder-mysteries. Johnson even pops up before screenings of the film to beg viewers – like Alfred Hitchcock in his prime – to not give away the twist endings. So I won’t do it here. Rian Johnson’s way too sweet to disappoint.

The murder that leads to the mystery is Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer), the film opening a week after his apparent suicide (or was it!?). If everything is so straight forward, then who has anonymously hired “last of the gentlemen sleuths” Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the death? There seems to be no shortage of motives either: in his last day, Thrombey threatened to expose his son-in-law Richard’s (Don Johnson) affair, cut-off his daughter-in-law Joni’s (Ton Collette) allowance due to theft, fired his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) as head of his publishing company and cut Richard and his daughter Linda’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) playboy son Random (Chris Evans) out of his will. On top of that, his live-in-nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) may have secrets of her own. Will Blanc be able to unpick this web?

Going too far into detail around Knives Out would be to spoil the general sense of fun that Johnson’s film manages to create. The film is not a spoof or parody in any way, but a very intelligent reworking of genre tropes and Agatha Christie style plot twists (a distant house, a mysterious killing, a host of suspects, a barrage of motivations, a house crammed with bolt holes, blackmail, muddy footprints, medicine and acting all get a look in), all governed by an eccentric detective bubbling with his own unique methods for solving a case. It’s all told with a brilliant affection, a wonderful twinkle and a great deal of invention and intelligence from Johnson. 

It’s also a film with a brilliantly assembled plot – and a neat reminder of what a strong writer Johnson is, as well as an inspired stylist. The film creates a host of superb characters for the audience to enjoy and puzzle over – each of them of course attracting a wonderful company of actors, a perfect mix of the skilled and wildcard choices, all of whom pay off. It’s also a structurally daring film: it reveals what it leads many to think is its full hand very early in the film, before subtly revealing that there are multiple mysteries wrapped up within the main mystery (“a doughnut within a doughnut” as Blanc puts it in his own unique way).

And interestingly the film more and more revolves around Marta, its seeming Captain Hastings-figure (or Watson as the film prefers to quote). Played with a charming guilelessness and honesty by Ana de Armas (in more ways than one, since all lies cause Marta to vomit, a joke that sounds crass but is executed perfectly throughout), Marta is the eyes we follow the film’s plot through, meaning we discover events as she does. Marta’s decency and honesty also work as a wonderful device to flag up the increasing hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness of Thrombey’s family. 

The Thrombey clan are an extraordinary group of self-obsessed, greedy and selfishly entitled so-and-sos, who seem to be lacking all expected principles. From Jamie Lee Curtis’ domineering elder daughter, who believes she is a self-made-woman but quickly resorts to bullying when she wants something, to Michael Shannon’s softly spoken but bitterly two-faced Walt, to Toni Collette’s seemingly liberal lady of the people Joni, who is actually as lazy and entitled as all the rest. It’s a host of delightful performances, not forgetting Don Johnson who is a revelation as Curtis’ conniving husband and Chris Evans (having a whale of a time) as the waspishly intelligent, smirking playboy.

Each of the family is as convinced of their own virtue as they are indifferent to those around them. Is it any wonder Thrombey wants to be shot of all of them? Even with the good-natured Marta, none of the family seem to have a clue of anything about her (much as they protest she is part of the family), each of them seemingly naming at random some South American country she hails from and each member in turn telling her confidingly that they would have loved to have had her at the funeral, but they were outvoted by the rest. It makes for a perfect collection of suspects for our detective.

Benoit Blanc himself is a fascinating collection of mannerisms and little touches. The name brings to mind the idea of Hercule Poirot, and Blanc has touches of the man’s arrogance and humanity. Craig has a whale of a time with the part, lacing it with a Southern charm and an eccentric swagger. It’s a part though that actually is a bit of a homage to Columbo, with Blanc also encouraging people to underestimate him and not take him seriously, only to suddenly reveal his insight (including in a last act revelation that is so pure Christie that super-fan Trooper Wagner can barely contain his glee). Blanc is in any case a brilliantly deployed near decoy protagonist, one who Johnson is encouraging us to underestimate as much as most of the characters do.

Thrombey’s murder – and Thrombey has a slight air of Agatha Christie to him, not least the fact that he has written the same number of best-selling books as Christie – is the key to it, and hinges on the overcomplex mind of the great murder writer himself. Johnson’s script is superbly playful, brilliantly written and a delight for murder mystery fans, full of wit and invention and also a very genuinely constructed and intelligent murder mystery. A terrific, playful and witty little treat.

The Shape of Water (2017)

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer work together to save a misunderstood creature in The Shape of Water

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Sally Hawkins (Elisa Esposito), Michael Shannon (Colonel Richard Strickland), Richard Jenkins (Giles), Doug Jones (The Creature), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr Robert Hoffstetler), Octavia Spencer (Zelda Delilah Fuller), Nick Searcy (General Frank Hoyt), David Hewlett (Fleming), Lauren Lee Smith (Elaine Strickland)

Guillermo del Toro: part arthouse director, part thumping action director, who else could have made both Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim? The Shape of Water falls firmly into the former category, and continues the director’s long-standing interest in fairy-tales and fables, creating adult bedtime stories filled with romance and wonder, but laced with violence and human horror (and it’s always the humans who are the monsters). The Shape of Water has been garlanded with huge praise – but yet I’m not quite sure about it. Just not quite sure.

In 1962 in Baltimore, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaner working in a government facility with her colleague, friend and effective translator Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Her only other friend is her neighbour, a gay out-of-work advert artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). The research facility takes delivery of a strange amphibious creature (Doug Jones), captured in the wild by sinister CIA man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). While Strickland and lead scientist Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) conduct tests on the creature, Elisa befriends it – the two of them drawn together by their isolation and inability to communicate verbally. When the decision comes from above to dissect the creature, Elisa decides to help it escape. 

The Shape of Wateris an adult fairy-tale that uses the structure, rules and heightened reality of the bedtime story. So we have Elisa as “the Princess without a voice”, the government facility as the evil castle, the creature as a mixture of damsel in distress and knight errant, and Michael Shannon’s vile government spook as a sort of perverted evil Queen. While the film is set in 1962, it’s aiming for a fantasy world feeling: Elisa and Giles even live above an old-school movie cinema, while the facility itself is a dank, subterranean concrete prison, part medieval dungeon, part industrial complex, dressed in a retro-1950s style. There’s no denying the film looks fantastically impressive.

The plot hinges on the growing bond between Elisa and the creature, which flourishes first into a mutual friendship, then semi-romance and finally into a full-blown relationship. If there is one part of the movie which I felt didn’t quite work, it was the build between friendship and love. While del Toro does some excellent work showing these two bonding over a common lack of language – she teaches him some basic sign language, they both share a love of music – I felt the jump between friendship and sexual attraction seemed a little big.

Del Toro films it all beautifully – and his empathy for both characters is very moving. But the film wants us to feel this deep connection for (and between) the two characters – and I’m just not sure I did. I’m not sure the film gives the time it needs for this development. Great as Michael Stuhlbarg’s (and excellent as his conflicted performance is) character is, could the film have removed his sub-plot and invested more time in the relationship? Yes it could – and I think this could have made a stronger movie. This is of course a personal reaction – I’m sure plenty of people will be bowled over by the romance of the film – but I didn’t quite buy it. For all the soulfulness of the film, I just didn’t find myself investing in this relationship as it built as much as I should.

This is despite Sally Hawkins’ expressive acting as Elisa. I find Hawkins a bit of an acquired taste: she is a little too twee, something about her eyes and vulnerable smile is a little too head-girlish. Of course that sprightly gentleness works perfectly here, but the character is more interesting when del Toro explores her depths, her desire and well-concealed resentfulness under a cheery exterior (practically the first thing we see her do is masturbate in the bath – a daily ritual timed to the second via egg timer, functionally getting these feelings out of the way before the day ahead). Hawkins mixes this gentle exterior and passionate interior extremely well throughout the film.

The principal supports are also excellent. It’s no coincidence that del Toro makes our heroes all outsiders: a mute, a black servant and an ageing gay man. As well as showing why these characters might be drawn together, it’s also a neat parallel commentary on attitudes of the time – Octavia Spencer in particular makes a huge amount out of a character that is effectively a voice for Elisa half the time, investing the part with a huge sisterly warmth.

Richard Jenkins is both very funny and rather sweet as a man scared of being alone and frightened about doing the right thing. Most of the film’s laughs come from him – but so does a large degree of its heart. Jenkins gets some fantastic material – from hints that he has been fired for social and sexual misdemeanors from his Mad Men-ish former job, to his growing realisation that his hand-drawn art is being left behind in a world embracing photography (“I think it’s my best work” has never sounded like a sadder mantra), and above all his hopelessly sad infatuation with the friendly barman at a local diner (the sort of hopeless crush you feel he must realise isn’t going to go anywhere good – but still manages to be endearing before it gets there).

Del Toro’s dreamy fable has plenty of potential monsters and obstacles in it – from government suits to Russian heavies – but the main antagonist is Shannon’s Strickland. Great as Shannon is in this role as a menacing heavy with a hinterland of insecurities and self-doubt, it’s a character that feels a little obvious. He’s the monster, you see! It’s a heavy-handedness the film sometimes uses – not least in its occasional references to the race politics of the era – that weights the deck, and tries to do a little too much of the work for the audience. Again, a film with one fewer sub-plot might have allowed this character greater depth. As it is, his vileness is established from the first second, which means the metaphor of his hand with its increasingly rotten, gangrenous fingers seems a little to on-the-nose.

But The Shape of Water is a labour of love, and a testament to love – and del Toro reminds us all what a luscious and romantic filmmaker he can be. The later romantic moments between Elisa and the Creature have a beauty to them – not least the moments when they immerse themselves together in water. Other moments are too obvious: an imagined song-and-dance routine is so signposted in advance that it carries little emotional impact. In fact, the film’s main fault may be it is too predictable: most of its plot developments I worked out within the first few minutes – but it sort of still works. After all, fairy-tales are predictable aren’t they?

Del Toro has made one from the heart here. It’s not a perfect film – it’s not a masterpiece, and I think it’s a less complex and affecting work than the brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth – but it’s made with a lot of love and a lot of lyrical romanticism. It looks absolutely astounding. It’s actually surprisingly funny and wonderfully acted: Richard Jenkins probably stands out, and my respect for Octavia Spencer continues to grow. Del Toro is gifted filmmaker, and he is working overtime here to make a romantic, sweeping, monster movie cum adult fairy-tale. All the ingredients are there: but somehow I didn’t fall in love. Did I miss it? Maybe I did. And I can’t think of much higher praise than I’m more than willing to go back and look again and see if I get more of a bond with it next time. But, for all its moments of genius, I found the delight was on the margins rather than the centre.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Amy Adams does a lot of reading and thinking in Tom Ford’s intriguing part thriller, part strange romance, part memory saga Nocturnal Animals

Director: Tom Ford

Cast: Amy Adams (Susan Morrow), Jake Gyllenhaal (Edward Sheffield/Tony Hastings), Michael Shannon (Detective Bobby Andes), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ray Marcus), Isla Fisher (Laura Hastings), Ellie Bamber (India Hastings), Armie Hammer (Hutton Murrow), Laura Linney (Anne Sutton), Andrea Riseborough (Alessia Holt), Michael Sheen (Carlos Holt)

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a society wife, running art galleries and married to an increasingly uninterested husband (Armie Hammer). One day she receives a copy of a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jack Gyllenhaal). The book, while sensitive and from the heart, is also terrifying and visceral, and speaks to her in a way few things in her life have. It makes her begin to question her own choices. We see the story of the novel played out – Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal again) and his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) are waylaid late at night on an abandoned road by a violent local (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) – tragedy ensues.

It would be easy to say Nocturnal Animals is a stylish film that favours beauty over substance. But that would be untrue – Tom Ford has crafted a dynamically structured, intriguing puzzle, open to (and ripe for) discussion and reinterpretation over and over again. The film teases us with uncertainty and ambiguity, but it manages to avoid slipping into heavy-handed pretension. It leaves us with things unsaid, presenting parallel narratives and inviting us to mix and match them to create our own understanding. Ford’s skill is to not always present a definitive answer for how the book plot we are watching is meant to reflect on the plotline of the real world.

Ford is really good at distinguishing between the fiction and the reality. The world of Edward’s story is heightened in nearly every way, in a broad Western setting, while Morrow’s “real world” is cooler and contained, set in chilly apartment rooms or icy modern galleries or homes. The intercutting between the two is skilfully done, perfectly paced, never confusing or jarringly pulling us suddenly from one reality to another. The film avoids making obvious visual crossovers and links between the two (bar once – a moment that doesn’t really work), leaving the interpretation up to the viewer.

The story-within-a-story has a heightened tension, sometimes difficult to watch, not least in the road-rage incident that opens it. This sequence is almost unbearable in its whipper-cracker tension, with a threat of physical and sexual violence in every moment. The horror is almost palpable, sold a lot by Gyllenhaal’s struggles to control his panic and fear. Taylor-Johnson plays the demonic bully with an overblown operatic intensity, a hyper-real flamboyance that works well because it serves as a contrast with the grounded elements in the real story. It also adds to the sense of horror throughout this whole chilling sequence. Who hasn’t felt fear of being pulled over in a road in the middle of nowhere by terrifying, aggressive young men?

But all the elements of the story-within-a-story are cleverly balanced literary flourishes, carefully designed to appear just a little too close to “drama”, than those of the real world. Michael Shannon – a hard-boiled slice of charisma, he’s very good – is basically a stock character, repackaged with depth, but very much the sort of character you would find in a film rather than real life. Gyllenhaal’s Hastings similarly has the sort of moral conundrum and intense grief that feel that they belong more to a character from literary fiction than real life. The events of this story have a ferocious hyper-real intensity to them. Events in the story-within-a-story has a carefully constructed sense of dramatic irony.

By comparison, the “real world” is almost deliberately low-key and humdrum –minor affairs, and small but telling secrets, lives that are stuck in dull ruts or unimaginative cul-de-sacs. Amy Adams gives a complex and fascinating performance, much of which is essentially her reacting to things she is reading. It’s a performance that reeks of regret, of a woman unhappy in the choices she’s made, but too in love with the advantages they’ve brought to risk changing. She’s so set in the conventionality of life she seems unable to even imagine using her independence to break free.

The film teases us by misleading us about the parallels between the characters in the real world and those in the story. Ford playfully implies at first what we are watching may be partly true, and invites us to wonder what may be invention and what might have actually happened in real life. Alongside that, he also uses the double casting of Gyllenhaal to demonstrate the self-identification writers have for their characters. How much does Sheffield see himself in Hastings – and how much do the events that occur to Hastings, suggest a self-loathing in Sheffield? Again it’s all left to our own invention and imagination. We get flashbacks to past events in the real world that serve to both broaden our understanding and make us question our preconceptions. 

The film builds towards a conclusion that is equally open. Despite its horrendous content in the story-within-a-story, there is a romantic longing in this film, a sense of a life not lived – and a hope for the future. The final sequence is completely open to interpretation – you could equally see it as hopeful (as Ford sees it) or bleak (as most audience members do) – I probably incline more to the latter, but that might just be me. Everyone though will think something a little different depending on what they see, and how they interpret it – the film doesn’t labour the points it makes or push you too far in any direction.

Nocturnal Animals is an intriguing experiment in form and content that works extremely well. It’s powered by some terrific performances and shot with grace and beauty by Ford. This is Ford really flexing his muscles as an artist of film, and he borrows liberally from Lynch to Hitchcock. Ford has a brilliant eye for composition and form and his editing is masterful. He gives his work a lyrical musicality, a sense of balance and rhythm – he’s also a fine, subtle writer and avoids the crudity of the showman. He’s a fine film maker, and Nocturnal Animals is an intriguing, at times hard to watch, but fascinating film that grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go.