Tag Archives: Thriller

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017): Threats, Mistakes, and Inexplicable Illness

Yorgos Lanthimos is not a normal person. His debut film, Dogtooth, centered on a family whose children were brainwashed into believing cats were vicious predators and that the outside world was uninhabitable. His most recent movie, The Lobster, was about a man sent to a facility where he had to find a partner or else he would be turned into an animal. As strange as they may sound, each of his films is centered on a high concept. His first was about societal norms, The Lobster was about the overlooked ridiculousness of courtship, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about trust during a family crisis. Steven (Colin Firth; The Lobster) is a heart surgeon who spends time with Martin (Barry Keoghan; Dunkirk), the 16-year old son of a man that died during an operation. After Martin meets Steven’s family, he decides Steven must pay for the death of his father. He claims a series of illnesses will strike Steven’s wife Anna (Nicole Kidman; Lion) and their son and daughter unless Steven makes an impossible choice.

Lanthimos continues the style seen in The Lobster but with a thriller twist. Characters still speak in the same monotone with a deliberately anti-naturalist cadence. This can still lead to laughter at the sheer morbidity flowing from each deadpan delivery. Martin’s threats are spoken like a reading from a number from a phonebook, slow, clear, and punctuated. He becomes a dangerous presence despite his size. He makes no physical aggressions and maintains a withdrawn posture. He seems resigned to the fate of Stevens family, not excited by it, and is completely stoic, often trying to present logical reasoning for why they must suffer. Keoghan, an Irish actor, maintains complete control of his body language and takes Martin from a potential red flag to an enigma of potentially sadistic capability.

The camera’s distance emphasizes the insignificance of the characters.

The film’s world feels sterile and foreboding. Lanthimos tracks his characters like Kubrick in the famous tricycle scene from The Shining but places his camera at a curiously elevated height with wide angle lenses. The camera, perched near the ceiling, looms over its subjects, making them tiny figures in a pristine, but cold and empty world. The hallways of Steven’s hospital are cavernous with rooms that dwarf the staff and patients. Lanthimos adds to this atmosphere with his use of music. The soundtrack uses heavy groans from a piano and violin screeches. Everything in the production hints at the ominous nature of the events to come.

The genre of the film is as inexplicable as its narrative. It features laugh out loud moments as characters bluntly and dryly describe their situation, flashes of body horror, but, more than anything, a creeping paranoia. Like with the family from last year’s The Witch, when the kids suddenly fall ill, distrust begins to grow. What is happening and how? What are they willing to do to stop it? Farrell and Kidman’s relationship goes from loving, or at least whatever loving means in a Lanthimos film, to jagged and explosive. There are no clear answers about on what is going on and what should happen next. Instead, their suspicion breeds desperation as we witness how quickly – and violently – a family unit can be upended by an outside force.

4/5 stars.

mother! (2017): A Dizzying, Disturbing Descent

With only strange posters and cryptic trailers, details about mother! have been deliberately kept to a minimum. The new film from Darren Aronofsky is one of his stranger works. Picture the creeping suspicion from Rosemary’s Baby, the allegory of The Fountain, and paranoid jump scares like the refrigerator scene in Requiem for a Dream all mixed together with a continuously escalating sense of chaos. Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) plays the much younger wife of a poet (Javier Bardem; No Country for Old Men) who has been struggling with writer’s block. They live together in a secluded house that Lawrence is renovating while Bardem struggles to complete new material. Their peaceful isolation is broken when a strange man visits and stays for the night, bringing with him much more than expected.

Working with his regular cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky’s camera is fixated on Jennifer Lawrence. The film is shot in uncomfortably tight close-ups with an unstable handheld camera. Libatique employs a constantly moving technique that creates a dizzying effect. Like a lab rat desperately trying to escape a maze, the camera swerves from room to room with each movement revealing more sinister situations. Its swirling pans prevent the tension from ever receding as increasingly destructive events erupt into the frame. As Lawrence, in her best performance to date, attempts to defuse her growing predicaments, her pure, altruistic love for her husband comes into stark contrast against the predatory beings intruding into her world.

Lawrence is sympathetic as the only humane character in a world of selfishness.

This is film that begs the question “how did this get made?”. And by a major studio! It may be that Paramount was hoping to stumble onto Black Swan levels of box office success, but that film didn’t contain anything nearly as divisive. mother! becomes unapologetically twisted and downright mean. Characters suffer horrible mistreatment while others seem unconcerned which may repulse viewers unused to such transgressions. As things spiral out of control, the film never stops to explain itself. Rather than elucidate the purpose behind the disorienting thrills, the film argues that the thrills are themselves the purpose and comes to a recursive conclusion that may leave general audiences unsatisfied. mother! is a film to be appreciated as a bewildering experience rather than typical narrative.

Aronofsky has stated his intentions about the film representing climate change. Lawrence is supposed to be the embodiment of mother nature with her shameless abuse representing the damaging effect of a greedy, merciless mankind. This interpretation may help understand the film and it seems justified, but my initial thoughts went elsewhere. This is a story of the mad, all-consuming destruction wreaked by an artist. Bardem’s character’s supposed commitment to his writing is slowly revealed to be nothing more than self-absorption hiding behind a pretense of depth. Every action he takes is self-aggrandizing and he is completely dismissive of the support from Lawrence’s character. mother! is a takedown of the egotistical nature of art. It externalizes the ugliness and selfishness of people fixated on their own success. The often vile acts onscreen may be exaggerations, but they aren’t untruths. Aronofsky has created a dizzying, disquieting, and disturbing descent into the dark side of any artistic pursuit.

4/5 stars.

Good Time (2017): An Ultra-Gritty Crime Caper

Good Time should really be called Tough Luck. Directed by brothers Ben and Josh Safdie (Heaven Knows What), the film follows two bottom-rung losers as they try to steal enough money to get away from their miserable lives. Connie (Robert Pattinson; Twilight) and his mentally challenged brother Nick (Ben Safdie) attempt to rob a local bank for $65,000. When their plan goes south, Connie decides to rescue Nick which leads to a string of progressively complicated situations as he fumbles each step along the way.

The Safdie brothers bring their realistic shooting style to the caper film. The word “gritty” is frequently thrown around to describe what appears as a more realistic shooting style, but in reality, it is a relative term. The concept is often associated with the crime films of Martin Scorsese and, in comparison to most slick, mainstream films, his works do appear more down to earth, but that is only because of the excessive sheen given to the visuals of a standard Hollywood picture. The Safdie brothers employ a style that can only be described as ultra-gritty. Their actors are mostly unknowns that look like regular people. They’re unkept and not particularly attractive. Even Pattinson, the former Twilight heartthrob, looks and acts like a lowlife and the change is refreshing. The extras and minor characters seem like regular, imperfect beings and the glamour-free appearances make Connie’s flight more intense because the setting is grounded in the real world.

Nothing about the brothers’ plans go as desired.

The New York City of the Safdie brothers is a downright shithole. This is a part of Queens far away from the haute intellectual settings of a Woody Allen film. The movie was shot on film and features a pronounced film grain, adding a scrappy, low-budget feel to the actions onscreen. The houses we see are cramped and rundown and the few glimpses of better situations are short-lived. These are the dirty streets of the lower class, filled with people in perpetual cycles of barely making it by. The cast that populates the city is uniformly excellent with the direct, curt behavior expected from the NYC working class. Safdie as Nick is unrecognizable and utterly convincing as a mentally challenged character with his vacant, disconnected stares and delayed reactions. In their previous film, the Safdie brothers followed heroin addicts slumming their way through the city and the realism of their repeated self-harm almost became repulsive. Here, the entertaining characters and Connie’s relatable motivation prevent the aesthetic from becoming unpleasant. Instead, it lifts the stakes and clearly distinguishes the film from others in the genre.

Despite their disparate visual styles, the Safdie brothers have made their own version of a Michael Mann film, specifically Thief. They even use a pounding electric score that is reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s work. The main difference is the caliber of their characters. Their protagonists, unlike Mann’s professional criminals, are horribly flawed. Connie is shown to have the seeds of good ideas and is crafty enough to momentarily avoid capture, but is not intelligent enough to fully solve his problems. The mistakes he makes as his outlook worsens are believable, but only for a desperate hoodlum with some awful decision-making. His narrow escapes exacerbate his situation and dig himself further into a hole which, to some, will almost be comedic in its escalation, but to others will be equally thrilling. The rough, realistic settings and increasingly precarious getaway make for a uniquely grounded heist movie.

4/5 stars.

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)

[BS Note: This film is currently available for streaming on Netflix]

Winning the Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic category at this year’s Sundance, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore received significant buzz, despite having one of the most onerous titles since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It is the directorial debut of Macon Blair, star of the intense thriller Blue Ruin. Like that film, this is also a revenge story. Ruth (Melanie Lynskey; Happy Christmas), a regular woman somewhere in suburban America, finds her house broken into with her furniture ransacked and her laptop and her grandmother’s silver missing. She calls the police, but, after their apparent disinterest, she decides to find the culprits herself, teaming up with her strange neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood; The Lord of the Rings).

Like 2015’s Wild Tales, this a story of normal people being pushed just beyond their limits until they finally break and act out. The film paints Ruth as the kind, unsung altruist in a world of selfishness. She spends he days caring for strangers as a nurse and treats others with respect. Yet, she doesn’t see that same kind of goodness in those around her. Other people litter, are rude, and cut in line. She feels lost and alone. The robbery and the ineffectual police response are what set her off on a path of assertiveness that eventually becomes aggression. This growth is empowering as she finally takes charge of her life and gets the things she wants and deserves.

Ruth and Tony are an unlikely, but strangely appropriate, pairing.

The film’s biggest surprise is Elijah Wood. His eccentric, religious loner is the perfect complement to Ruth. While she feels suffocated by the world, Wood’s Tony is barely even aware of it. He walks around listening to his metal and disconnected from anything or anyone around him. He decides to help Ruth because of his sense of justice, but is obviously unfamiliar with anything even remotely close to real crimes. Where others would bring a baseball bat as a weapon, he brings shuriken and a morning star, claiming to know how to use them. His strangeness is balanced by his innocence and he proves to be the perfect counter to Ruth’s increasing hostility. He is not only her companion, but is also her moral center, reminding her of what is right, what is wrong, and why she started her mission in the first place.

Blair’s choice of story and directing style are clearly influenced by his friend and frequent collaborator Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room). He uses the same stripped-down approach and also favors characters in the margins of society. The difference is that where Saulnier goes for the pure tension and gore of a genre film, Blair brings comedy. He is still able to create tense scenarios, but they are result of his characters’ own comical failures. Their fumblings are caused by their own inexperience and unintentionally raise the stakes as Ruth and Tony mess up even the simplest of tasks. They find themselves embroiled in increasingly dangerous schemes with little idea of how to remedy the situation. This comedic tone makes I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore a funny and liberating revenge thriller with agreeably offbeat leads.

4/5 stars.

Moka (2017)

Following the tragic loss of her young son, Diane (Emmanuelle Devos; Coco before Chanel) is unable to lead a normal life. She still sees visions of him and doesn’t know how to move on. Her son died in a hit and run and no one has been convicted yet. There aren’t even any suspects. Unable to wait any longer, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Using a list of cars in the area that match an eyewitness description, she sets out to find the killer herself.

Diane’s detective work puts her own objectives at risk. As she tries to understand the character of her son’s potential killers, she accidentally embeds herself deep into their lives. She finds herself falling into accidental friendships with them and her inquisition reveals more than she expected. When they were nameless murderers, possibly going uncharged for their crimes, Diane had a clear plan. Her conviction was strong and she knew what her response would be, but learning about their lives shakes the foundation of her beliefs. The details she learns humanizes them. Are these people really capable of committing a hit and run? She sees them as regular, flawed human beings rather than the cold villains she pictured and is unsure what to do next. Director Frédéric Mermoud delicately balances the crime, the criminals, and Diane’s need for justice by calling the impact of her plan into question. Even if these are the right people, how could anything to undo her loss?

Diane’s demeanor isn’t unstable enough for there to be a true risk of violence.

This is intended to be the source of the film’s tension. What will Diane do? A grieving parent may not act rationally, but as Mermoud points out, is there a rational response? Diane’s behavior is contrasted with her recently estranged husband. He says the police are working on it and that they should let them handle things. But the crime occurred seven months earlier and they haven’t had any new developments. Her husband is law abiding, but can look complacent. However, the director prevents him from appearing detached by showing brief glimpses into the husband’s own pain. The difference between him and Diane isn’t how much they loved their son, it’s how they channel their suffering. He points it inward whereas Diane throws it outward.

While the moral issue is evenly evaluated, the story sticks too closely to its genre and Diane is too predictable as a character. This is a procedural about vigilante justice and follows those tropes. Diane tails her suspects like a shabby private investigator and there is even a scene where information is exchanged on a park bench straight out of a spy thriller. Even with the extreme measures taken to find her son’s killers, Diane would need to be perceived as dangerous for the film to create suspense. There needs to be a believable threat that she could do something drastic. Devos is sympathetic as the lead, but her performance doesn’t have the unhinged menace required. She loved her son and is visibly broken by his passing, but the restraint she shows around the suspects prevents her from ever seeming deadly. She doesn’t seethe with hatred, instead she broods in pain. Without a set of equally credible outcomes, Moka loses the suspense of its central moral dilemma.

3/5 stars.

The Beguiled (2017)

Re-adapting a book originally published in 1966, Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) makes full use of her female cast. During the American Civil War, Martha (Nicole Kidman; Eyes Wide Shut) and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst; Melancholia) run a school for girls in the south. They live by themselves until one of the girls finds a wounded Northern soldier and brings him back home. Instead of immediately turning him in, they decide to help him recover first because it is “the Christian thing to do”. The soldier’s co-habitation leads to some unexpected results.

The film is unexpectedly funny. Initially, the humor feels unintentional, like the filmmaker doesn’t know that her serious attempts at drama are awkward, but Coppola’s plans soon become clear. The film isn’t just a twisted tale of what happens to a soldier brought into a house full of women. It’s about how those women, deprived of any male presence in their lives, react to his arrival. Their scrambling for his slightest acknowledgement and the way each character flaunts it over the others is incredibly comical. They each have their own unique way of trying to connect with him. Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon) as the oldest girl is the standout as she quickly switches from distrust of a Northerner to being the boldest of the group, all while trying to maintain an air of propriety.

Watching the women compete for the soldier’s attention is always entertaining.

The soldier’s impact is to immediately disrupt their priorities and their social order. Coppola expertly dissects the delicate hierarchy between the women. She is acutely aware of how women can establish and maintain their own ranks with Kidman as their alpha-female. She commands the others and they obey, that is, until a new factor is added. Suddenly, their rankings are open for renegotiation. The contrast between the adults and the girls best exemplifies this natural order. The women know their standing with each other, but it always implicit. The girls on the other hand haven’t yet learned discretion. After the soldier enters their lives, they begin competing for his attention. The women do this subtly by wearing jewelry or nicer clothing, but the girls explicitly shout “I’m his favorite!” or “He doesn’t like you”. They know that his affection has become the new determining factor of power within their household. His presence rattles their standings and puts the house into temporary disarray when Martha can no longer wield the power she is used to.

The film then turns this power dynamic on its head again. Having examined the ways in which women can be divided, Coppola pushes into how they can unite. After more changes occur, the hierarchy is again reshuffled with the women no longer competing against each other. What they are capable of and, more importantly, the proper manner in which they handle it is hilarious. Coppola embeds the film’s narrative turns in the etiquette of the time making even heinous actions appear somehow polite and, for a lack of a better term, “lady-like”. The Beguiled is a smart, feminist take on intra-sex rivalry wrapped in the tropes of a twisted thriller.

4/5 stars.

It Comes at Night (2017)

In a boarded-up cabin somewhere in the U.S., a family lives in isolation. Paul (Joel Edgerton; The Gift), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo; Selma), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) lead strictly regimented lives. After a needed, but traumatic act is performed, Travis begins to have nightmares about what their living situation requires. Their routine is interrupted when a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house, claiming to be searching for supplies for his family.

While Travis may be conflicted about their actions, Paul has no such quandaries. Edgerton plays the character with a harsh, but necessitated practicality. Every rule they adopt and action they take is designed to protect the family. He doesn’t view things as right or wrong, he sees them as safe or unsafe. When Will enters the picture, it complicates his perspective. He sees himself in Will, another man just trying to take care of his wife and son, and takes some measured risks to help him. It’s the uneasy trust between the two families in the face of the outside threats that is thematic center of the film.

The cinematography, particularly within the cabin, is incredible. Director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) moves his camera through the house like a cat burglar, smoothly creeping into each room. It maintains its distance however, adding a sense of voyeurism to the images. The sight of Travis quietly walking around the house is always unsettling. His movement is lit only by his lantern whose light reflects off the wood paneled walls like a flashlight held under one’s face during a fireside ghost story. There is tension with every creaking of his steps and the film is at its best when the seclusion and supposed safety of the cabin is translated into fear of the unknown beyond its one entry point, an ominous red locked door.

The foreboding lighting makes their cabin a precarious setting.

There’s a disconnect between what many will expect and what the Shults is interested in delivering. The title, while fantastic for the right type of horror movie, is misleading. It implies that the film is a monster movie, which it clearly isn’t. This is a film that examines the effect of extreme pragmatism created in the wake of a society destroying event. It’s not about creatures in the dark, it’s about the extent to which people lose their humanity when acting solely in their own interest. It’s the conflict between altruism and self-preservation and the risks that either choice creates. The title and marketing hint that there is or could be something beyond the human dangers, but there isn’t – or at least it doesn’t manifest during the course of the movie.

That isn’t a spoiler, it’s a preface. The film does itself a disservice by playing into the tropes of a monster movie. This decision creates an expectation in the audience for something supernatural which will cause many to be disappointed and overlook the other stellar components of the film. It Comes at Night is a deliberate thriller suffused with atmospheric tension that deserves to be appreciated for what it is and not maligned for what it occasionally pretends to be.

4/5 stars.

A Cure for Wellness (2017)

After having spent the better part of the last fifteen years toiling away at mediocre to bad tentpole releases, Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) is back with something decidedly niche in its appeal. Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) plays Lockhart, a young, ruthlessly ambitious Wall Street executive tasked by his bosses to retrieve a member of their board who left to a “wellness center” in the Swiss Alps. Similar to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, this is a health facility where something is amiss. As Lockhart first enters the area the movie seems to be headed towards similar territory. Yet, unlike that film, A Cure for Wellness isn’t built around a cheap twist. Lockhart’s first questions are “What do they cure here?” and “Why do people stay?”, but as the film progresses those thoughts fade away when more sinister intentions become apparent. Each wing of the center appears ominous and it’s unclear what lies behind the locked doors.

Like in the early films of George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg, Verbinski brings A-level talent and production to the trappings of a B-level story. The sets are immaculate and emphasize the excessively sterile interiors of the sanitarium. The glistening floors contrasted with the historical architecture hint at the danger within. Hallways are cavernous and the empty space only exacerbates the eeriness of the setting. The contraptions used by the physicians are deliberately retrograde, resembling early 20th century industrial equipment more than anything else. These are tools wrought from heavy iron, not the light stainless steel we are accustomed to in medicine. The weight communicates one thing: permanence. The facility appears to have changed little since its construction and anyone placed in these devices would have no chance of escaping from them, perhaps like the very center itself.

The beautiful, mazelike interiors appear inescapable.

The cinematography brings the menacing atmosphere to life. Bojan Bezelli, who collaborated with Verbinski on previous films, uses his camera to communicate the mental fragility of the subjects. Scenes are refracted through drinking glasses or reflected in the eyes of trophy animals. Even the condensation around a cup of water feels unsettling. He favors unhealthy shades of green that dominate the design of the facility. His unique angles and sickly colors give the film a ghostly beauty.

All of this makes A Cure for Wellness a rarity in modern cinema. A larger budgeted movie and an experienced team behind the camera shooting a twisted film. It’s part shock value and part arthouse, but with no expense spared. The premise draws influence from horror classics like Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face and body-horror king David Cronenberg. Credit has to be given to screenwriter Justin Haythe for developing an original story that moves beyond its inspirations into unnerving territory. As the more perverted elements are revealed, some audience members will be repulsed, but the rest will be captivated. The enigma of the sanitarium grows into an intriguing allure: how deep does the depravity go? To answer that question would be a great injustice to the filmmakers, but suffice it to say that despite some of the reactions it is sure to elicit, the plot, while perhaps overlong, rarely becomes gratuitous.  Any onscreen displays are only to support the central mystery. Verbinski and his team have elevated a schlock setup into something gorgeous, original, and satisfyingly deranged.

4/5 stars.

Split (2017)

The words “M. Night Shyamalan” used to elicit groans or sighs. After releasing often laughably bad films through the late 2000s he returned in 2015 with The Visit, his first movie in a very long time to receive anything close to favorable reviews. While that film wasn’t a complete success and lacked some of his strongest talents because of the found footage shooting style, it did show hope for his future. With Split, Shyamalan has created his true return to form. Leaving a birthday party, three teenage girls, led by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) as Casey, are kidnapped and awaken in a locked room. A stern man (James McAvoy; X-Men: First Class) enters their room and tells them not to worry because they will be taken care of. In other scenes, this same man is seen by his psychiatrist for dissociative identity disorder (DID). He has 23 total personalities, each with their own behavior and, according to his shrink, their own physiology. During their meetings he reveals that there is a 24th personality about to emerge.

The entire film rests on the shoulders of James McAvoy. With so much asked of him and so much of the runtime centered around his performance, a failing on his part would have easily crippled the movie. Fortunately, he is up to the task. Many actors would have relished an opportunity like this to show off their acting abilities, but McAvoy successfully juggles the disparate roles with aplomb. As he switches personalities, his accent, his mannerisms, and his overall presence completely changes. While it could be considered comical to see him dressed as a woman in high heels, McAvoy’s physical stature and commitment make it an unsettling sight. He is able to engender sympathy as he plays the child personality, Hedwig, then moments later fear as Dennis, the personality that kidnapped the girls. His adaptability is praiseworthy.

The dank interiors are the perfect setting for a kidnapping.

Shyamalan’s early films greatly benefited from strong direction and blocking and Split is no different. Camera movements are smooth and the sets are built to instill claustrophobia. Shyamalan hired Mike Gioulakis, the cinematographer of It Follows, to shoot this film and the effect is obvious. There is a noticeable improvement to the lighting and colors from The Visit and it helps establish the atmosphere. That being said, Split does not have the dread of Shyamalan’s best work. He is able to create tension in several scenes but isn’t able to maintain the suspense throughout. This is caused by the other two girls and a problematic backstory for Casey that distract and detract from the desired mood.

Sadly, any review of the director’s work will always need to answer one question: is there a twist? The answer in this case is not really. The film is fairly straightforward in its story and never hints at a hidden subtext. The ending will leave some viewers incredulous, but it is believable within the context of the film. The real surprise of the film comes as a stinger at the very end. It isn’t a twist, but it recontextualizes the narrative in the best way possible and hints at a very exciting path for Shyamalan’s next films. While Split isn’t his best work, it provides a welcome recovery of the director’s trademark style.

4/5 stars.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

“A lot of people have it worse than us” says a wealthy art patron. In Nocturnal Animals, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams; Man of Steel), lives an extravagant but vacuous life as an art gallery owner. She lives in a mansion and has an attractive husband but is struggling with personal and marital issues. Her husband is likely unfaithful and she is so preoccupied that she is unable to sleep. Unexpectedly, she receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal; Nightcrawler) who she hasn’t heard from in over a decade. They married young, but soon divorced after Edward’s failed writing career was unable to provide the pragmatic stability Susan desired. Surprisingly, the delivery is a manuscript of Edward’s debut novel, dedicated to her and titled after his nickname for her. The book has some apparent parallels to their relationship and is about a man named Tony Hastings, also played by Gyllenhaal, who is confronted by potentially dangerous men while on a road trip with his wife and teenage daughter. The film interweaves the story of the novel with Susan’s present life.

Jake Gyllenhaal continues his streak of transformative performances. In flashbacks to their early relationship, he appears gentle and romantic with full cheeks and a warm smile. In the novel however, he becomes deranged with sunken eyes and a gaunt appearance close to his character in Nightcrawler. In each role he fully inhabits the character while maintaining the belief that they are really the same person, exemplifying how deeply his relationship with Susan has changed him.

Director Tom Ford made a name for himself as the lead designer for Gucci and his high-end taste is clear in the outfits and sets. Everything down a shirt’s threading or a the positioning of a lock of hair is chosen for its aesthetic value. Susan’s entire life looks like it has been ripped out of a fashion magazine. Initially, this has a distancing effect because the characters look too perfect or at least too fashion obsessed. There is one scene in particular over the opening credits that is incredibly indulgent and unnecessary “avant-garde art” that starts the film off on the wrong foot. Fortunately, the majority of the film shows the events of Edward’s novel which is set in the much more down-to-earth, but still exquisitely designed, rural Texas. This setting provides a much need contrast to Susan’s almost sterile high art milieu.

Susan leads a pristine but empty life.
Susan leads a pristine but empty life.

The framed narrative balances the two stories. Susan’s perspective is that of upper-class existentialism. She is wealthy and successful, but is unsure of the decisions she has made in the past and the direction her life is headed in. Her struggles can be difficult to relate to and seem small compared to what most regular people face everyday. On the other hand, Tony’s story is immediate. The moment the rednecks force them to pull over, the fear sets in. Echoing films like Deliverance, the unknown threat of what these lower-class men could do makes their every move precarious. Tony is faced with an impending danger that pulls Susan out of her bubble. She begins to see the deeper emotional fears and damages that her ex-husband faced after their relationship dissolved.

Ford has said in interviews that his films are truer reflections of himself than his work as a fashion designer. If that is the case, then his interests lie in the grieving process. Just as Colin Firth’s character in A Single Man was coping with the loss of his significant other, Edward uses his novel as catharsis to get over his relationship with Susan. It is his own way of cleaning and dressing the wounds left by her departure. To Ford, the dissolution of a romance is as painful as the death of a loved one. Nocturnal Animals is his examination of how both sides of a partnership endure that loss.

4/5 stars.