'Nocturnal Animals' Mesmerizes With Thrilling Psychodrama

Directed by: Tom Ford; Runtime: 116 minutes
Grade: A-

The thought that might creep into one's mind when they hear that a fashion designer has directed a motion picture might be one of artifice, that they've concentrated on style above substance in how they've brought their talents to a storytelling medium. Tom Ford's soulful adaptation of A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood's novel about the lingering effects of losing a loved one, proved that the designer has far more tricks up his sleeve than the glamours and expression of aesthetics, instead paving the way for sheer enthusiasm toward his next project. Ford's second feature, Nocturnal Animals, channels the polish of his freshman film into a layered, challenging psychological drama that explores grief, redemption, and how humans perceive masculinity and strength themselves, wrapped around and interwoven within an unsettling story-within-a-story that amplifies its musings.

Someone might not know how to feel about Nocturnal Animals based upon the peculiar art exhibition found at the film's beginning, yet even that has its own deliberate devices. The bold, in-your-face display is the work of artist and gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a considerable success in her industry who lives in a sleek, modern home with her second husband (Armie Hammer), a jet-setting businessman . One day, Susan receives a manuscript from her first husband, Edward, along with a note indicating that he'd like to meet and catch up. Amid coping with a lackluster marriage and insecurity over her artform, she delves into the novel: a thriller set in the empty outskirts of Texas, focused on a husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), wife (Isla Fisher), and daughter (Ellie Bamber) trio who are tormented by a crew of rambunctious locals -- led by a particularly sadistic yokel (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) -- while on the nighttime leg of a road trip.

From the hollow, chilly polish of Susan's house to the dusty, night-cloaked roads and ramshackle buildings of rural Texas, Nocturnal Animals latches onto nuanced atmosphere with its aesthetics, yet veers away from being ostentatious ... unless the film demands it. Director Ford frames Susan in a dreary and disconnected attitude, overtly conveying that she's a sort of tortured artist yet doing so without sacrificing the credibility of her personality. She's surrounded by other kooky, life-loving artist friends -- Andrea Riseborough's Cleopatra-esque holistic disciple; Michael Sheen's purple-jacketed card -- but they also feel vaguely genuine underneath their flamboyance and their immaculately tailored personas, crafting an absorbing facade that reflects upon the aura of insecurity surrounding Susan's life. The shallowness has its own intentional layers, ones which are peeled back as the unhappy woman delves into her ex-husband's novel and the starkness of where his mind was at while writing it.

Nocturnal Animals shares its title with that of Edward's book, which in itself is a uncompromising thriller hinged on the empty reaches of Texas' nighttime highways and the unhinged nature of disturbed locals cruising through the darkness. It simmers with meaningful tension as the safety of a man's wife and daughter comes under duress, placing his lack of control of the situation under the microscope as things turn grimmer and more tragic. Unlike other films that utilize such a story-within-a-story, the mystery's terrifying downward spiral into anguish and vengeance truly draws one's attention toward what's going to happen next -- partly due to how it echoes the mentality of Susan's ex-husband, but also because Tom Ford has assembled this raw and meaningful depiction of powerlessness and violence here. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance might be predictably wide-eyed and haunted at most points, but the ways in which he handles the story's more unnerving twists and turns push him toward disarming levels of mania and trauma within the character's headspace, counterbalanced later on by the stiff diligence of the investigator played by Michael Shannon.

The narrative structure of Nocturnal Animals is a thing of beauty once it falls into rhythm with Edward's novel, made interesting by the juxtaposition between what's happening on the pages and what the author intends for the audience, and Susan herself, to take away from its veiled allegory. Amy Adams' performance relies on delicate shifts from the emotionally cool frustrations of Susan's existence to the wistful tension of her shock and regret, strengthened by how sublimely Ford incorporates flashbacks to her prior marriage into the transitions between the real world and the one created by Edward's novel. Eloquently captured by Atonement and Pride & Prejudice cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and fluidly edited together to emphasize an intended mental space, this trio of timelines -- the present, the past, and the fictional -- create a sort of echo chamber within Susan that's absorbing to behold, illustrating where her ex-husband's inspiration might come from and how she interprets the nuances of the material. Director Ford gets a tad overzealous in the coexistence of the two, such as when a gunshot in the book is echoed by a bird slamming into one of Susan's windows, but it's easy to forgive a little modest usage of stylistic flair.

Such things are even easier to forgive once Nocturnal Animals digs deeper into the potency of its thematic aspirations, which revolve around how masculinity and strength are viewed through a narrow societal scope, as well as how the impressions of others can poison viewpoints on that. Director Ford fires off these ideas without directly aiming them at an overarching point or clear emotional target, though, instead letting a range of interpretations about what constitutes "weakness" guide the film's melancholy tone toward its explosive culmination, one underscored by self-realization, hostility, and the lingering effects of undervaluing other people's capacities. Once the book's finished and the literary world fades back into reality, Nocturnal Animals leaves plenty to be deciphered in the sobering, open-ended nature of its conclusion and the pointed actions of certain individuals. The way it lacks clear answers and perpetually gravitates towards cynicism leave things in a harsh, cold emotional tangle, yet that's an appropriate part of what gives the substance of Ford's sophomore directing effort its edge.

Film review also appeared over at DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

Small World, Big Differences In Altman's Insightful 'Short Cuts'

Directed by: Robert Altman; Runtime: 188 minutes
Grade: B+

The element that draws most people to an intersecting drama like Robert Altman's Short Cuts can also prove to be its biggest dilemma: the novelty behind how so many different people share connections with one another, the embodiment of the statement: "Small world, huh?" Seeing the ways that disparate individuals come in contact with one another keeps the viewer's mind engaged and curious about what's coming next, but giving these characters too many or too close of those kinds of connections can also lead into doubt over the conceit. It's a tricky balance, especially when trying to give these criss-crossing lives a thematic purpose for doing so, which can potentially twist the premise into a gimmick with a strong, overcompensating message that tries too hard to hold everything together. Director Altman, whose success with personal and interrelated dramas had been responsible for the likes of M*A*S*H and Nashville, soars above such concerns with a vivacious, authentic, and thematically conscientious glimpse at LA's denizens.

Short Cuts spans close to three hours and contains very little that resembles an overarching plot, spreading its focus out among the dozen-plus characters who are eking, surviving, and thriving throughout the city of Los Angeles. The substance, therefore, falls on the nature of their contained subplots, which are too numerous and singular to discuss here without giving things away. Instead, it's easier to run down the types of people bustling around and throughout this adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories, which span from a diner waitress (Lily Tomlin) and a phone-sex operating, stay-at-home mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a promiscuous and demeaning police officer (Tim Robbins) and a happily married broadcast journalist (Bruce Davidson), among many others. The unemployed, underemployed, and comfortably employed go about their day-to-day activities while responding to shifting situations, some of which are more serious and momentous than others, from suspicions of infidelity to unexpected deaths.

Captured by the candid and nuanced eye of Sex, Lies and Videotape and Empire Records cinematographer Walt Lloyd, Short Cuts lives up to its name by briskly jumping between the stories of these individuals, never lingering long enough to overstay its welcome. Director Altman's understanding of the distinctiveness of characters gets challenged by the myriad personalities and the brevity of these vignettes, where he not only has to find common threads between clearly different people, but he also needs to illustrate how a few people involved in similar fields across Los Angeles differ greatly from one another. Even though there's a wide variety and number of characters involved, and even though they fill expected archetypal roles -- musicians and club singers, painters and makeup artists, penniless clowns and limo drivers -- Altman ensures that few of them come across as token stereotypes or superficial entities.

Altman's impeccable eye for casting plays a huge part in the success of Short Cuts, to which he zeroes in on the internal needs of these strained individuals and marries them with the right dramatic souls -- and occasional comedic relief -- projected by the actors. Aside from Tim Robbins' dastardly turn as the cheating cop, also easily the most darkly amusing of the bunch, there's a rather even mix of likable sympathy and detrimental flaws among most of the characters, impacted by their individual moral perceptions, past demons, and personal decisions about how they conduct their lives. They enliven and elevate the observational nature of Carver's writings: artists like Julianne Moore's bottled-up Marian underscore the impassioned origins of her paintings; blue-collar workers like Chris Penn's pool guy Jerry lend a haunting observational eye to the nature of his wife's phone-sex profession; and the wide-eyed, growingly frustrated edge of Madeline Stowe as a housewife reveals much in her turn to nude art modeling as fleeting liberation from her husband's unfaithfulness.

In the above paragraph, you might be able to decipher one of the many intersections found in Short Cuts, which Altman handles with a sort of modestly and carefulness that sidesteps most, if not all, of the pretentious tactics that can plague these kinds of productions. It boils down to the overarching end-game behind these numerous connections: there really isn't one. Some are relatives who trade musings about each other's situations, while others are friends who coax out different behaviors and revealing comments with their conversations. And others, still, are simply strangers who ride up alongside one another ... or, at one point in a bakery, just share the same space with one another without any interaction whatsoever. Altman isn't working toward a big collision point that conjoins everything into a bold dramatic expression; instead, these associations serve a much more earnest purpose by purely deepening the context surrounding these characters, underscoring truths about the kind of people they are and justifying others' impressions of them.

Short Cuts also isn't concerned with hitting its audience over the head with social commentary, either, opting instead to let the nature of these individual stories speak for themselves and make their own points without over-inflating their significance. The themes can be pinpointed without Altman preaching about them or straining the credibility of the "everything's connected" concept, allowing these stories to revolve around the turmoil of infidelity, the toxicity of dishonesty, and the burdens of creative ambition to emerge from the director's candid dramatic orchestrations. A vague notion of existential anxiety and dogged suspicion hovers above Short Cuts, shaken up by a rocky conclusion that attempts to bring those ideas into clearer view, yet that still doesn't serve as the sole, requisite takeaway from Altman's keyhole glimpse into these lives. This can be a small world held together by a lot of complicated threads -- some worn out or taped back together, others that can be permanently severed -- and that's all this poignant gem needs to convey.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

TV Season Coverage Roundup for DVDTalk.com

Check out some of the TV reviews I've been responsible for lately over at DVDTalk.com:

"In the realm of vampires, haunted houses, and serial killers, it's getting tougher to dig up something fresh and genuinely unsettling to put on either big or small screens. Nowadays, the vampire genre gets its thrills from low-key, thought-provoking dramas and satirical comedy, sprinkled with tastes of gore that almost seem like they're meeting obligations. Haunted-house movies have fared better, scaring up chills in the likes of The Conjuring and The Babadook, yet their refined approach toward specters looming in houses remains safely opaque and one-dimensional. And serial-killer flicks have given way to the Gone Girl and Girl on the Train variety of domestic plots, neglecting the disturbing, warped-reality motives of American Psychos and John Does. This latest installment of American Horror Story invites all manner of supernatural beings and methodical murderers into their Hotel, sinking its teeth into classic and modern outlooks in a melting pot of monstrous character studies, producing an intriguing mixed bag elevated by performances and atmosphere."

Full Review of American Horror Story: Hotel can be found here: [LINK]

"Sometimes, it's hard to know when the time's right to close the lid and bury a television series, coming down to whether the story has the longevity to thrive across more seasons and, on a more practical level, whether the audience will remain engaged enough to keep it alive. That's a conversation not so easily had about Penny Dreadful, the horror-themed serial from Showtime. Along with a ravenous cult fanbase, the show appears to have seemingly infinite narrative possibilities within its grasp, considering how it can continue pulling character from the annals of classic horror literature into the hazy space of 19th-century London. With that in mind, there's also a tricky threshold involved with how much of this that writer John Logan can incorporate without overburdening the premise, or without repurposing the same narrative ideas from season to season. Thus, the decision was made to end Penny Dreadful at three runs, and the caliber of the diversions and overly familiar plot threads this time around prove it to be a wise one."

Full Review of Penny Dreadful: The Final Season can be found here: [LINK]