Tense regret-thriller has style and substance

The audience in the downstairs seating area of Castlemaine’s recently refurbished and re-energised Theatre Royal hushed immediately the opening credits of director Tom Ford’s new film Nocturnal Animals began – hardly surprising, given how confronting the initial images are.

Ford, a former fashion designer, can certainly put together sumptuous art-magazine type visuals. In this, his second movie since his 2009 directorial debut with A Single Man, there is a hint of self-reference as he simultaneously revels in, through meticulous attention to colour and framing in every moment of every shot, yet also wants us to find distateful – arresting opening aside – the excesses of wealth and stylised beauty.

The story, based on the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, centres around Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a successful but lost Los Angeles art gallery owner suffering a loveless, empty marriage to a disinterested husband (Armie Hammer) and a job she realises she hates. Susan receives out of the blue the draft of a first novel from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she has had little contact with for nearly 20 years. In a not-so-subtle hint at what is to follow, she cuts her finger opening the package containing the work.

As she begins reading we also enter the novel with her. The book, depicted as a parallel movie within the movie, tells the story of a young man Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) who sets out on an all-night road trip with his wife and daughter. The trip goes horribly wrong and Tony and his family are dragged into a living hell, with tragic results. Ford then moves us back and forth between the brutal action of the novel, the blank stillness of Susan’s opulent yet sterile present, and her and Edward’s pasts, unsettling us with the changes in pacing and occasional shifts into the surreal. The clever casting of Adams lookalike Isla Fisher as Tony’s wife in the novel also helps keep us guessing for a while as to just what really has happened in Edward’s past, and what is, in fact, metaphorical fiction. 

This is a moving noir-thriller of sorts about regret – Susan’s – as she, aided by Edward’s anguished novel, ponders the choices she has made (including leaving him) to find herself in such a depressing, soulless place, while she also gradually comes to understand, as we do, just why he has chosen the title for his work (Nocturnal Animals, like the film) – and why he has dedicated it to her. Ford fills every scene with a disquieting tension, and even when the dry, hard-smoking lawman Bobby Andes (played in the performance of the film by the monotonal-but-excellent Michael Shannon) turns up to help, both Tony and the audience are far from comforted, given the air of understated menace Andes exudes.  

Despite the use of a couple of unnecessary, overtly obvious cinematic tricks and some clichéd moments, this beautiful-looking film is boosted by its unpredictable, ambiguous ending, which, thankfully, doesn’t stoop to neatening-up events, or our emotions. Nocturnal Animals is a slightly disturbing, depressing and thoroughly enjoyable movie.




Homage and more to Hollywood musicals and city that spawned them

Can today’s cynical movie-going audiences, brought up on a diet of gritty near-realism, warm to a romantic tribute to classic Hollywood musicals?

Well, yes. Especially when that tribute is La La Land, so much more than just a rehash of classics from a bygone era. It’s no wonder director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz’s film swept the recent Golden Globe awards and is tipped to also win a swag of Oscars. There is something in their hit movie for everyone: romance, drama, fantasy, despair – and even a sliding doors-type ending.

The premise is classic old Hollywood showtime fare though: it follows the story of two (youngish) kids with big dreams – aspiring, plucky actress Mia (Emma Stone), who is stuck pulling coffees in an LA film lot while going from one disastrously cruel, failed audition to another, and who gets off on the wrong foot with moody-yet-charming Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz-purist pianist with a dream of opening his own jazz club but stuck playing Christmas durges in his boss’s (the always comically watchable J K Simmons ) bar instead of performing his own uncompromised ‘free jazz’ compositions.

But Chazelle and Hurwitz – college roommates with a shared love for classic musicals – have produced a pleasantly hard-to-define film. La la Land is no rom-com, although there are flashes of wit and fun between the two leads throughout, particularly in their early interchanges (look for the cute scene when Sebastian walks Mia home and they sing and dance more at, than with, each other to the tune ‘What a Waste of a Lovely Night’, lamenting they are in the right place but with the wrong person). Romance eventually, though not exactly according to formula, blossoms, but their initially joyful relationship soon hits the rocks and turns even gloomy at times, as circumstances and their choices, particularly Sebastian’s, stymie a smooth, 1930s-style movie love.

Despite their identifiable on-screen chemistry, Gosling and Stone, though serviceable singers and dancers, are no Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But that’s not the point, a fact underscored by the film’s melancholic, but wonderful, ending – one far from any Fred and Ginger might have met.

This is definitely not your classic Hollywood musical. Once we get past the big, bright, primary colourful opening number, staged, of all places, in the midst of an LA traffic jam, and a couple of other more traditional breezy numbers, the tone darkens somewhat as reality takes over. Relationships, money worries and ambitions – and how to combine them – prove tough to figure out for the pair.

Which is exactly why La La works. It is an homage to a genre yet seeks to redefine it, is littered with clichés yet full of originality too.  

The stylised cinematography also helps bring to the fore the film’s other star: the city of LA itself (how could it not be, given the title?). The land of sun, swimming pools, film-lots and cars features prominently, as Mia and Sebastian sing (including serenading the town with the movie’s most catchy tune and Globe winner for best song ‘City of Stars’), dance, and, at times, regret their way through a series of LA landmarks,

La La Land is still, for sure, light-entertainment – it is a musical after all, and we do have to get used to the jolt of watching people step out of cars or bathrooms and break into song – but it is sincerely and successfully blended with a very believable romance plus a clichéd-yet-true theme of sticking to your convictions and believing in yourself if you want to find real happiness.