Sunday, June 18, 2017
As a director, Tommy Lee Jones isn’t exactly prolific: four features in just over twenty years, two of them – ‘The Good Old Boys’ and ‘The Sunset Limited’ – for television. His big screen directorial debut was ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ (2005), a contemporary western concerned with revenge and redemption that has about it more than a touch of Peckinpah. It’s a damn good movie; close as all hell to being a modern classic.
‘The Homesman’ is a western set in the 1850s concerned with failure and redemption that has about it more than a touch of Michael Cimino. In both films, Jones acknowledges his influences and draws on them subtly and respectfully in the service of the story he’s telling. ‘The Homesman’ has the stateliness and the visual grandeur of Cimino circa ‘Heaven’s Gate’ – cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is the film’s unsung hero – the better to contrast with the dour narrative and its unsettling accretion of detail.
The film opens with three women in a hardscrabble Nebraska township emerging from a particularly vicious winter having succumbed to mental illness. “Mad women”, as the townsfolk are quick to label them. The parson, Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow), arranges for their care to be given over to a preacher’s wife in Iowa and calls upon one of his flock to make the journey: an undertaking of several weeks. When farmer Vester Belknap (William Fichtner) – husband to the afflicted Theoline (Miranda Otto) – refuses to take part in a drawing of lots to determine who gets the job, spinster of the parish Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) takes his place.
No prizes for guessing who ends up playing chauffeur to the disturbed women?
In addition to Theoline, Mary Bee’s charges number Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) and Gro Svendson (Sonja Richter). I’ll not reveal that nature of their mental illness: an unflinchingly blunt sequence early in the film – fleshed out by a couple of flashbacks around the midway point – spells out their suffering. Mary Bee – brittle, pious, frustrated in her attempts to find a husband – isn’t the ideal candidate for the company of the demented. Early in the journey, the incessant wailing of one of her charges drives her to despair. The hard realities of the journey don’t sit well with her, and the arrangement she enters into with petty criminal George Briggs (Jones) to assist on the trail as recompense for saving him from hanging is also fraught; they’re opposites in gender, age, social standing, theological views and general outlook on life.
As the journey progresses, Jones – co-scripting as well as directing (film is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout*) – maps the gradual thawing of their relationship, only for things to take a sharp and unexpected turn. Again: I’m remaining tight-lipped. Suffice it to say that the last third of ‘The Homesman’ plays out under the shadow of the event in question, giving it the feel of an extended coda … notwithstanding one scene of stone cold ruthless violence that is cathartic only to a point.
‘The Homesman’ is a fascinating piece of work, primarily because of its focus on mental illness. It’s a theme that wrong-foots you as a viewer, subverting what you expect from a western even as the production design, cinematography and music evoke the genre as classically as in anything by Ford, Cimino or Eastwood. Inasmuch as Jones can only portray his female cast in terms of the few social roles that the rampant patriarchy of frontier life afforded women, ‘The Homesman’ can also be considered a feminist western. Jones as director has great respect for the film’s treatment of its anti-heroines and even two scenes depicting the grubby realism of personal hygiene on a long trial are shot without recourse to exploitation.
Any film so strongly grounded in character succeeds or fails by its performances. Jones gives a minimalist, elegiac variation on a type of character he’s played several times before and can play to perfection. Except where Briggs is required to be the focal point for a scene’s dynamic, Jones he is careful to keep himself to the side – if not in the background – and cede the film to his co-stars. Swank is as brilliant as you’d expect: I don’t think anyone else could have played Mary Bee.
Otto, Gummer and Richter, notwithstanding that they barely have a word of dialogue between them, turn in genuinely affecting character work. Streep, in a five minute cameo, does her best work since Eastwood’s ‘Bridges of Madison County’. Hailee Steinfeld, popping up at the end to literally be nothing more than an indicator of Briggs’s capacity for good, suggests soulful depths to a character that is pretty much one-dimensional on the page.
Everything else about ‘The Homesman’ works beautifully and in concert. It is a stunningly well-made film, glacially paced as befits its narrative; a film of telling minutiae and elegantly nuanced grace notes; it is mature, intelligent and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Which, sadly, it failed to find on the big screen. But that’s what DVD, streaming and on-demand are for. Seek this one out, engage with it on its own terms, go through what its characters experience. It’s transformative.
*Robert Rossen’s ‘The Came to Cordura’, Henry Levin’s ‘Where the Boys Are’, and Don Siegel’s autumnal classic ‘The Shootist’ are all based on Swarthout’s work.
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Pete Travis’s ‘City of Tiny Lights’ – adapted by Patrick Neale from his own novel – does three things superbly well, fumbles the ball elsewhere, and outright drops a bollock in two places. On of these bollock-drops is crucial, the other an annoyance.
Here’s what ‘City of Tiny Lights’ does best: it gives Riz Ahmed a gift of a lead role and gives him the space to knock it out of the park. I’ve yet to see Ahmed give even a lazy performance; he’s certainly come nowhere near a bad one. The guy has charisma to burn and an effortlessness in front of the camera. I’m convinced he can play pretty much any character. Here, he essays the role of Tommy Akhtar, a chain-smoking ex-cop eking out a precarious living as a private detective.
Which brings us neatly to the second thing the film does brilliantly: it allows itself to be as hard-boiled as fuck. Akhtar is cynical and world-weary and not adverse to using violence if need be, and all of these things spew from the still open wound of his defeated romanticism. Tommy Akhtar is a private eye in the grand tradition of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe; his odyssey through the city’s underbelly is as dark and labyrinthine and as riddled with distrust and ghosts from the past as any of theirs. The narrative is almost deliberately complicated, the pinball of Akhtar’s investigation pinging from murdered call girls to low-level politics to crooked property deals by way of radicalisation and fundamentalism.
It’s a distillation of everything that’s wrong with a metropolitan city: corruption, careerism, capitalism, corporationism, racial disharmony and the arrogance and entitlement of power. With Josh Brolin or Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role, you could easily imagine it unfolding against the neon soaked backdrop of New York. But no, we’re in London but that doesn’t stop Travis shooting the city as if were the rotten half of the Big Apple. He also shoots London without feeling the need to shoehorn any of the obvious landmarks into the background. This is a London that doesn’t recognise the Eye, Big Ben, Tower Bridge or the Spire. Even the most upwardly mobile of the film’s characters wouldn’t get within spitting distance of West India Quay.
Akhtar is variously aided, distracted and emboldened in his investigations by new client, high class call girl Melody (Cush Jumbo – who ought to be a major star in two years’ time if there’s any justice), old flame Shelley (Billie Piper, sadly underused) and his memory-addled, cricket-loving father Farzad (Roshan Seth). Subject of whom: third massive plus-point in the film’s favour. Seth is nothing short of awesome, imbuing his role with poignant dignity even as he provides comic relief in the early scenes. His pivotal moment in a tense scene late in the game is something I absolutely won’t spoil; suffice it to say he walks away with the film.
Here’s what the film doesn’t do so well (I’ll keep this part of the review brief, because I’d rather retain my positive impressions of ‘City of Tiny Lights’): It has a terrible title. Yes, I know it’s from a song by Frank Zappa, but Zappa never gets a mention and Akhtar isn’t established as a music fan in the way of, say, Inspectors Rebus, Resnik or Morse. It’s a good title for a song, but not for a film, and certainly not for a hard-boiled film. Unfortunately, it’s a title that seems to have inspired DoP Felix Wiedemann to go overboard with the focus pulls, the cityscapes behind Akhtar drifting, time after time, into a blur of … well … tiny lights. It’s a thudding example of a visual aesthetic bludgeoned into literalism, and after a while it becomes wearying. The decision, too, to render a couple of dramatic pursuits as an impressionist blur of colour and motion might have sounded conceptually brilliant during storyboarding, but just comes across as arty-farty and an impediment to the film’s pace. And during those moments where the film slows long enough to let you think about it too much – its 110 minute running time is excessive; it should have been a fast and brutal 90 minute thriller – it’s difficult to fathom any reason why Akhtar persists with his investigation in the face of at least two very convincing warnings-off.
Which brings me to the two big failings. For all that Billie Piper brings the star presence to the role of Akhtar’s lost love, the series of flashbacks prompted by her reappearance – which cumulatively account for about a fifth of the overall film – are both unconvincingly staged and only peripheral to the plot. The big thing that’s been haunting Akhtar all these years is revealed in decidedly ho-hum fashion, and the connection between his wasted youth in the 90s and a character he reencounters contemporaneously, could have easily been effected with recourse to the rampant melodrama on display here. The 90s scenes are terrible and come damn close to derailing the film.
The job is almost done for them by the very last scene. It’s one thing for an anti-hero to find personal redemption after encountering the very depths of human venality; just like it’s one thing for a terminal loner to find himself, at film’s end, with an ersatz family (Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ pulls this trick off perfectly, without ever being saccharine). Unfortunately, ‘City of Tiny Lights’ tries to deliver both in a single scene, ending on a truly god-awful final line. It sends you out of the cinema choking on a sugar lump of pure schmaltz.
‘City of Tiny Lights’ has garnered cautious reviews at best, and struggled to finds its audience on the big screen. Maybe it will have an afterlife on DVD. I hope so, even though I know it’s not a film I’d get many repeat viewings out of. I would like to see Ahmed play Tommy Akhtar again, though; this time with a paired down script, directed with ruthless narrative drive, and free from even the vaguest strand of sentiment.
Sunday, May 07, 2017
High concept goes lo-fi in this British comedy that treads similar territory to 2013’s ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’. Hell, Steve Coogan’s in both of them. Here Coogan plays Peter Eastman, an actor who’s done rather well in a forensic detective TV drama called ‘Windjammer’, a spin off of 1980s hi-tech cop show ‘Mindhorn’ whose protagonist was played by insufferable egomaniac Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) and which ended after three seasons when an embarrassingly drunk and coked up Thorncroft publically humiliated himself on a talk show, offended everyone associated with the show, dubbed the Isle of Man (the series’ setting) a “shithole”, and announced that he was off to Hollywood.
Twenty five years later, having abjectly failed to make it in Tinseltown, Thorncroft is reduced to making commercials, attending auditions for rubbish parts, and haranguing his long-suffering agent (Harriet Walter). When Paul Melly (Russell Tovey), the chief suspect in a murder case, contacts the Isle of Man Constabulary to say that he will only talk to Mindhorn, Chief Inspector Newsome (David Schofield) and D.C. Baines (Andrea Riseborough) reluctantly contact Thorncroft and ask him to resume his old role. What follows – as you’ll probably guess, given the involvement of both Coogan and ‘Mighty Boosh’ regular Barratt – is a comedy of embarrassments that is, by turns, genuinely funny, dispiritingly predictable and ploddingly laboured. The moments where it really hits its stride are certainly worth the ticket price, but ‘Alpha Papa’ it isn’t.
One of its funniest set pieces is the opening, which sets up the dynamic of the ‘Mindhorn’ TV show. Full of macho posturing, overly-dramatic line deliveries and opening credits delivered in a hideous font, it’s a spot on piece of spoofery. Imagine ‘Mindhorn’ as a cross between ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ and ‘Bergerac’ with Thorncroft’s performance akin to that of “John Actor” playing Monkfish in the recurring ‘Fast Show’ sketches. (Mindhorn/Monkfish: I’m stating the obvious here, aren’t I?) Indeed, Thorncroft’s casual sexism recalls Monkfish’s “put your knickers on and make me a cup of tea” ethos.
Director Sean Foley, whose first film this is, mines a lot of humour from the cult of 1980s. A running gag about ‘Mindhorn’ merchandise pokes fun at any number of American hit shows of the era, while the ATV logo is sneakily inserted in the ‘Mindhorn’ opening credits. And there are a handful of bitchy jokes about ‘Bergerac’ (the John Nettles starrer that was set on Jersey). Essie Davis’s role as ‘Mindhorn’ co-star and romantic interest Patrica Deville is a thinly veiled nod to Louise Jameson’s nothing role on ‘Bergerac’.
But beyond nostalgic box-ticking for 80s TV fans, what does the movie have to offer? Sad to say that Barratt is probably the least of its attractions: not only does Thorncroft have to be an arrogant price for 90% of the running time to make the concept work, but Barratt seems to enjoy playing the façade a little too much, and when the time comes for the character’s redemption in the final act, it all feels very forced. Fortunately, everyone else is on form – Davis, Riseborough and an hilariously irascible Schofield are a delight to watch, Tovey takes a very trickily written character (Melly’s mental deficiency, while again necessary to the plot, verges on exploitative) and does fine work, and Simon Farnaby nabs the Agitation ‘Man of the Match’ award for his broadly comedic yet oleaginously creepy turn as Clive, Thorncroft’s former stuntman and now romantic rival.
The hour twenty five minute running time is just right. The pace is generally decent, except when Foley takes too long to set up a joke or labours the payoff (some business involving a switched videotape is a case in point). There’s one set-piece – an assassination attempt and a high speed getaway that are assumed to be part of a civic parade, a bored dignitary giving a running commentary on the whole thing – that is inspired in its concept and pitch perfect as an archetype of British humour. Had ‘Mindhorn’ scraped together another three or four moments this good, and Barratt redialled the performance just a tad, it could have been great. But there’s no reason why the same team, with just a slightly sharper approach, can’t deliver a bona fide belter next time round.
Saturday, April 08, 2017
Let’s be honest: under any set of objective analytical criteria, ‘Going in Style’ is a pretty average movie. Its screenplay isn’t just predictable: you can literally cue in every narrative beat on a scene by scene basis. Matters pertaining to the gift of a watch and the capturing of a specific bit of CCTV footage are set up in such thunderously obvious style that their later relevance is something you can see coming like an ocean liner on a duck pond. The look of the film and its production design are entirely utilitarian. And with the exception of one whirlingly terrific scene where the sketching out of a bank’s floorspace segues into a “planning the job” montage, helmer Zach Braff doesn’t bring a single directorial flourish to the table. Had ‘Going in Style’ been made with a lesser cast than Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, Christopher Lloyd, John Ortiz and Ann-Margret (who, at 75, still has more va-va-voom than many starlets a third her age), it wouldn’t have had much to recommend itself beyond the obvious anti-establishment satisfaction of watching a bunch of old dudes pull off a heist. (And let’s face it, Arkin’s contemporary Frank Langella set the seal on that concept in fine style with ‘Robot & Frank’ five years ago.)
That Caine and Freeman would play off each other in fine style was a done deal. That Arkin would bring his deadpan sarcasm A-game, ditto. Eccentric, scene-stealing supporting work from Lloyd? Guaranteed. Ortiz being cool just by underplaying? The man has the patent on it. Now throw in perfectly acceptable work by Matt Dillon as a determined FBI guy, Peter Serafinowicz (an actor often denied sympathetic roles) as Caine’s son-in-law, and Joey King as Caine’s granddaughter. Everyone’s engaged and, for the most part (Josh Pais as an unctuous banker is the over-egged exception), the cast pitch their performances to each other’s strengths; sure, Freeman, Caine and Arkin are the top billed talent, but ‘Going in Style’ is inarguably an ensemble piece.
The plot shouldn’t need a rehash for anyone who’s seen the trailer (hell, even a glance at the poster would probably do the job), but for the sake of completeness, here goes: three OAP buddies who worked at the same steel plant together are robbed of their pension when the firm undergoes financial restructuring; family commitments, health problems and an increasing awareness of their own mortality add to their woes. When one of their number is witness to a bank robbery, one that the media widely reports the perpetrators as getting away with, they decide to pull a similar job. That the bank is administrating the steel plant’s restructuring is the decider: they agree to take only what was depleted from their pension, superannuated by their assumed remaining lifespan (the scene where they each speculate how much longer they have is one of the best moments the film delivers).
Hands up everyone who’s pegged ‘Going in Style’ as ‘Hell and High Water’ with a free bus pass. Yeah: me too.
It’s derivative as all hell. At one point, Braff has his protagonists watch ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ on TV (“I don’t want to see the ending” one them muses) and the inclusion of footage from such an edgy and powerful classic almost sinks ‘Going in Style’. Elsewhere, the tone veers from meditations on the indignity of ageing that wouldn’t be out of place in ‘The Straight Story’ to knockabout farce that makes the average ‘Keystone Kops’ two-reeler look like Tom Stoppard.
And yet … and yet … despite everything – despite the fact the screenplay presents less a fluid narrative than a shunted-together collection of vignettes; despite the fact that the performances from the name-above-the-title triumvirate constitute screen work they could do in their sleep; despite the poundingly unsubtle sops to the audience’s emotions – it works. ‘Going in Style’ somehow finds a way to benefit from its hoariness, its obviousness, its lack of originality. It reminded me of ‘Papadopoulos & Sons’ in its conversion of comfort-food aestheticism into a fictive zone in which the characters are presented to you like old friends, their journey unfolds exactly as you expect (and moreover want) it to, and you’re simply allowed to enjoy the ride.
Thursday, April 06, 2017
Let’s start by shooting the elephant in the room. And why not, since everything the fuck else gets shot in Ben Wheatley’s new film? ‘Free Fire’ is a technical exercise and nothing more. It’s an experiment in the spatial possibilities of a single location utilised to its maximum. It’s the work of a filmmaker, in thrall to every cool crime flick made in the Seventies, wondering how long he can drag out the shoot-out for. For almost the entire movie, it turns out.
As a narrative, ‘Free Fire’ can be summarised in less than twenty words: various crims converge on a warehouse to do an arms deal; everything goes tits up; gunplay ensues. Sure, I could pad that out to tell you who the characters are and who they’re played by, but that wouldn’t get us past the fact that they’re all ciphers, so let’s just think of them at the One With The Bad Sooth Ifrikaan Accent, the Moody Oirish One, the Snivelling Little Weasel and the Wiseass Douchebag whose mutual antipathy prompts the conflagration, the Too Cool For School One, and the Token Chick. That’s not me being sexist, by the way. Brie Larson’s character is basically referred to as a “chick” or a “bird” and only the actress’s natural screen presence allows for any characterisation beyond that.
As a crime drama or thriller, ‘Free Fire’ does nothing you haven’t seen before. The abandoned warehouse/decayed urban setting is reminiscent of ‘Reservoir Dogs’, ‘Trepass’, the last scene of ‘The French Connection’ and several dozen others at least. The dialogue – save for a handful of throwaway lines used to comic effect – is functional at best.
And even reckoned as an entry in cinema’s century-long pantheon of great shoot-outs – the film’s self-acknowledged raison d’être – it never comes close to achieving the catharsis of Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ or the sheer visual poetry of John Woo’s ‘The Killer’. Candles, fluttering doves and balletic dives by cool guys in long coats and shades firing two-handedly are notable in ‘Free Fire’ only by their absence. Nor does Amy Jump’s script engage with the interrelationships of the various groups who find themselves at odds and out to kill each other. Peckinpah would have rigorously interrogated the psychology, motivation and group dynamics so that even the longest and most visceral climactic bout of violence would have felt earned, devasting and inevitable. For Wheatley and Jump, the shoot-out exists for its own sake.
And therefore we have to evaluate ‘Free Fire’ purely for its technical prowess, since its so resolutely disavows any other frame of reference. Which is probably just as well since the performances – apart from Larson and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley – are generally terrible, the use of music cues is hackneyed, and the attempts at Scorsese- or Tarantino-style iconography near the start is mere copyism. Indeed, there’s precious little in the first 15 minutes to remind you that Wheatley was the dark, provocative talent behind ‘Kill List’, ‘A Field in England’ and ‘High-Rise’.
Still, it takes no more than those first 15 minutes to establish ciphers (sorry, characters) and setting and get everyone edgy and trigger happy. And once the shooting starts, Wheatley’s directorial prowess leaps to the fore. Unlike so many contemporary films – where choppy editing and shaky camera work conspire to leave the viewer in abject confusion as to who is where and shooting at whom; or where spatially finite interiors suddenly take on Tardis-like dimensions as heroes and villains range over seemingly endless square-feet of foot space and they squeeze off round after round – ‘Free Fire’ sets out its stall quickly and precisely in terms of the warehouse’s dimensions, the antagonists’ spatial relationship to each other and the ballistic capability of the weaponry on display, and plays scrupulously fair by its own rules.
What I took away from ‘Free Fire’ – more so than the observation that even the world’s worst perm, a coating of grime and some blood splatter can’t make Brie Larson anything less than radiant – is how incredibly well thought-out the film is. This wasn’t just a case of handing over the action stuff to a second unit; this is the work of a director who is genuinely interested in the aesthetics, logistics and challenges of shooting action, and the film benefits immeasurably from Wheatley’s complete engagement. He also makes a wise decision in not taking the material seriously, instead allowing it to unspool as an absurdist black comedy. Which isn’t say that ‘Free Fire’ is entirely fun-with-guns or muzzle-flash-and-quickfire-gags; the cynical cruel streak that runs through all of Wheatley’s oeuvre is present and correct here.
Full disclosure: I enjoyed ‘Free Fire’. It delivered up some decent belly laughs and it was just ridiculous enough to appeal. I can’t fault it on a technical level (the sound design, in particular, is something to be marvelled at). But I can’t help wondering what Wheatley’s motivation was. For all its strong points, so much of it seems like a showreel to demonstrate what he can achieve with a small budget ($10million) and that he can be trusted to deliver standout set pieces. What I’m hoping is that ‘Free Fire’ is a letter of introduction to the money men whose chequebooks can make possible his much mooted remake of ‘Wages of Fear’. If this is the case, we should all go out and see it, and maybe in 2019 or 2020 I’ll happily be reviewing the film that I’m convinced will be Wheatley in excelsis.
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
When Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) take their relationship to the meet the parents stage, it’s a one-sided deal. Chris’s single-parent mother died when he was eleven. He’s beaten the disadvantage of class, race and economic background and is starting to make a name for himself as a photographer. Rose, however, is pure ivy league and it’s to her parents’ sprawling country estate that they repair for the weekend.
The last stage of the journey is down one of those ominously empty and tree-lined roads so beloved of horror-movie directors. Their car goes off the road after they hit a deer in one of those worse-to-come foreshadowing moments so beloved of horror-movie directors. At the Armitage residence, Rose’s parents – Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) – are effusive in their welcoming of Chris. Perhaps a little too effusive. But still, here’s Rose’s loose-cannon brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) to balance things out with some outright hostility. And we haven’t even met the Armitages’ retinue of decidedly oddball friends yet – all of whom are characterised by the slightly unhinged performances so beloved of horror-movie directors.
Does it sound like I’m gently satirising writer/director Jordan Peele? Far from it: his rigid adherence to the genre playbook is the film’s strength. Peele obviously knows his horror movies and loves them – but loves them with enough ironic remove that he can bend the formula to his particular agenda. And does he ever? And with such aplomb! ‘Get Out’ uses the structure, iconography and narrative expectations of the genre to lead its audience happily into a ‘Stepford Wives’-goes-torture-porn comfort zone, while sneakily engendering a dialogue on race, identity, cultural appropriation and the façade of liberalism.
The latter is one of the sharpest satirical blows Peele lands and I can imagine an entire tranche of Caucasian filmgoers bristling against it. It’s one thing having Bubba and John-Boy and any number of their dentistry-challenged, IQ-deficient cousins going all psycho on a black protagonist in a horror movie, but it’s quite a different dynamic when the villains are the very people for whom white-man’s-guilt hand-wringing and fiscally permitted entitlement combine to well-meaning but often wincingly patronising effect. “I’d have voted for Obama a third time if I could,” Dean espouses with deadpan sincerity at one point; “best president of my lifetime.” Missy, meanwhile, fixates on Chris’s smoking as unhealthy and badgers him to undergo hypnotherapy.
It doesn’t take Chris long to figure out that something is amiss. The too-forced jollity of the Armitages’ groundsman and housekeeper (both African-American); the token black man, all dapper outfits and plummy vowels, in their circle of friends; the parties where guests pry a little too intimately; the warnings of Chris’s best bud, airport security guard Rod (LilRel Howery, earning himself a Man of the Match award), that these aren’t the kind of people he should trust.
I wouldn’t dream of blowing the gaffe on where all of this is heading, although a fairly redundant pre-credits sequence drops some pretty heavy hints. ‘Get Out’ uses its surface as camouflage – and its surface has “dumb shlocky horror flick” written all over it. This is nowhere near as evident as in the third act, which is as dumb and schlocky as it gets, boasting some scientific shenanigans that make ‘The Man with Two Brains’ and ‘Frankenhooker’ look like documentary realism. And yet as conceptually daft as the third act gets, it’s still the best metaphor for cultural appropriation that genre cinema has yet concocted.
The film has very few flaws: it’s slightly overlong, some of the early scenes play out longer than necessary, the cinematography is a tad pedestrian in places (but only in places, mind: DoP Toby Olivers delivers a handful of genuinely striking images), and there’s no real chemistry between the leads. Although maybe that was intentional.
What it gets right, it gets right in fine style. Keener’s the best she’s been for ages, effortlessly creating an inscrutably creepy character; the comic relief (mostly courtesy of Howery) is perfectly balanced against the slow-burn tension and the gory shocks on the final act; and the use of the seemingly ordinary to create suspense, menace and imbalance is pitch perfect. This is, after all, a film in which the most antiseptically clean of guest rooms comes to feel like the dingiest of prison cells, social etiquette is revealed as racism with a university tenure, and a delicate bone china cup and saucer with the dinkiest of teaspoons can rightly take its place alongside Leatherface’s chainsaw, Freddy Krueger’s manicure and the driller killer’s toolkit as one of the most squirmily horrible instruments in contemporary horror cinema.
Wednesday, February 08, 2017
For anyone with a serious redhead fetish, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ – which features no less a quartet of world-class beauties of said hair colour than Amy Adams, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber and India Menuez – might well prove their ‘Citizen Kane’. (It also stars Andrea Riseborough, an equally not-troubled-by-the-ugly stick redhead, but buries her under a brunette frightwig.) For anyone else … hmmm, well …
‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a Tom Ford film. I know this because the opening credits are ushered in by the authorial statement “a Tom Ford film”. As are the closing credits. Seriously, the moment the final shot fades to black, there it is: “a Tom Ford film”. But let’s get back to the opening credits for a moment. As they crawl towards their interminable conclusion, overlaying slow motion shots of morbidly obese people dancing naked in slo-mo – a series of images that has no bearing on what follows and is never revisited – the last three are “produced by Tom Ford”, “screenplay by Tom Ford” and “directed by Tom Ford”.
Tom Ford has obviously never heard of the traditional “written, produced and directed by” credit. Or he has, but rejects it in favour of stamping his name on his product as omnipresently as possible. Tom Ford is also a fashion designer, and it might be that his fixation with labels extends to his new career as a director. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is his second film and it should probably be legislated that you don’t get to say “a Your Name film” on your films until you’ve directed at least half a dozen of them and genuinely proved yourself as an auteur.
But, for better or for worse, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ (one of the worst titles I’ve come across since Nick Willing’s ‘Photographing Fairies’ back in 1997) is a Tom Ford film, so let’s take a few paragraphs to discuss what it has to offer in all its Tom Fordy Tom Fordiness.
Art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Adams) is twenty years divorced from non-career-focused wannabe writer Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), trapped in a loveless second marriage to smooth bastard, philanderer and also-ran businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer) and a distant mother to Samantha (Menuez). Her life is perfectly ordered, sterile and about two steps away from total implosion. One day, she receives a proof copy of a novel Edward has had accepted for publication (it looks more like an amateurishly bound MS rather than a set of galleys or a bound uncorrected proof, but hey ho) and which is dedicated to her.
The novel tells the story of regular guy teacher Tony Hastings, his wife Laura and their daughter India and how their family vacation turns into a nightmare after an encounter with a bunch of rednecks. Minor spoiled: Laura and India are sexually assaulted and murdered while Tony, more through his captors’ stupidity than any proactive decision on his part, escapes. Dead inside, he partners with unorthodox lawman Bobby Andes to track down the perpetrators and take revenge.
As Susan reads, she imagines Edward as Tony, and drops in place surrogates for herself and Samantha as Laura and India (Fisher and Bamber respectively). Also, she imagines the story in vicious and uncompromising detail. Andes is played in this film-of-the-novel-within-a-film by Michael Shannon and he’s the absolute motherlovin’ best thing in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ by a wide margin. Everyone else seems stilted and ill at ease, even down to Riseborough and Michael Sheen turning in caricatures in bit parts. The hillbillies – portrayed grubbily by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo – are no less clichéd.
I’ve read a broadsheet review which seriously tries to suggest that the filmed excerpts from the novel are comparable with Peckinpah. Bullshit! Peckinpah would have given the rednecks characters and rooted their motivation within a socio-economic framework, not to mention establishing a realistic dynamic as regards their interrelationships. But, y’know, Peckinpah could direct and that’s the difference.
Edward’s novel is about revenge, and in riffing on little details that force Susan to confront her memories, it is also an act of revenge in and of itself. As Susan’s carefully constructed rationales for her equally carefully constructed lifestyle begin to implode, she wanders through her gallery and is confronted by a painting she can’t even remember acquiring. Black paint on white canvas: the word “revenge”. At this point I wondered if Tom Ford was going to run round from behind the camera, flick a speck of non-existent dirt from his impeccable Tom Ford suit, point at the painting and enquire of the audience whether they were fully aware that this is a film about revenge. And then perhaps deliver a short lecture on how it’s also a film about how the hollow lives of upper-middle class entitled people who do each other emotional violence are thrown into sharp relief by the story of a life rendered hollow by an act of physical violence committed by the underclass.
Tom Ford’s obsession with the rednecks’ filthy lifestyles – right down to showing his audience a post-arse-wipe scrap of toilet paper (thanks, Tom) – is if anything more prurient than his love of lifestyle porn. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography certainly emphasises this, exercising cool restraint as his camera prowls the art gallery or Susan’s clinically neat des res, then happily rubbing the viewer’s nose in degradation whenever the hillbillies are on screen. And can I say once again how fucking stereotypical these boys are? I half expected the end credits (“a Tom Ford film”) to refer to them as Bubba, JohnBoy and BillyBob Rapist.
‘Nocturnal Animals’ is undoubtedly well made. Thought went into every aspect of it. They way thought goes into films by Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke. And like those boys, for all the artfulness behind the enterprise, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that buttons are being pressed and controversy courted for its own sake. I’ve said before on these pages that von Trier and Haneke remind me of nine-year-olds who have just figured out that saying “fuck” in the playground gets a reaction and delight in proving that observation over and over again.
Tom Ford is playing from the same playbook – not to mention playing in the same sandbox – with ‘Nocturnal Animals’. He has a cast to die for, some incredibly talented collaborators behind the camera, none of which count for much in the face of his ego and what I can only suspect are a seething raft of issues that he’d be better off seeing a therapist about rather than inflicting on paying audiences.