This film has been roundly praised in some quarters but I’m not sure I’m so enthusiastic about it. Director Tom Ford, who was responsible for the similarly acclaimed A Single Man (2009), is best known as a designer, starting in ‘interior architecture’ and moving on to fashion before making A Single Man. That film’s been sitting unwatched on my hard drive recorder for a while and I’ve noticed that some critics have argued it was more about style than substance. Nocturnal Animals has generated some similar comments and I’m afraid that’s my reaction too.
‘Nocturnal Animals’ is the title of a ‘story within a story’ – a form of mise en abîme which also occurs in cinema when fictional characters might stage a play/make a film which in turn reflects on the lives of the fictional filmmakers. In this case, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a first novel, written by Edward, a man in his late 40s, and posted as a manuscript to his ex-wife. She is Susan Morrow, a college lecturer, now a woman with a family and married to Arnold, a surgeon. The lead character in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is Tony, a maths professor who becomes the victim of an altercation with three men on a remote road at night in Maine which also threatens Tony’s wife and teenage daughter. Susan starts to read the novel and can’t stop. The author of the ‘framing novel’ entitled Tony and Susan was Austin Wright, a Cincinnatti Professor of English. It was his last novel, published in 1993 and he died in 2003. Although the novel received praise from critics on publication and was sold for a possible film adaptation, it didn’t sell books in the expected numbers and it wasn’t until it was seen as successful in the UK that it was re-published in the US in 2010. At this stage, Tom Ford was able to work on an adaptation, seemingly creating his own adapted screenplay with some significant differences to the original novel.
The film itself is now also called Nocturnal Animals and this title is presented as referring to Susan during her time with Edward. It also seems to refer to her now as she reads Edward’s manuscript over one weekend when she can’t sleep (and the novel is dedicated to her on the first page of the manuscript). The major difference between Wright’s novel and Ford’s film, however, is a change of setting, including the occupations of Susan and her husband. In the film, Susan (as played by Amy Adams) is a high-profile gallery operator focusing on modern art and her husband Armie Hammer is some kind of ‘money man’ who is clearly spending a weekend away with a mistress when supposedly on business. This is the weekend when Susan reads the manuscript. The manuscript has also changed a setting with the highway altercation now in the wastes of West Texas (where there is no mobile phone signal).
The gallery sequences are filmed with great attention to interior design, lighting etc. and if you like this kind of thing no doubt you will find it interesting – I don’t enjoy this clinical, hard design style. Worse, an actor as engaging as Amy Adams seems imprisoned in the set with all the life drained from her. I like Amy Adams and I like Jake Gyllenhaal, but both seem miscast here, although Gyllenhaal, who plays ‘Tony’ in the manuscript story does OK in that role. The film has three parts, the ‘now’ of Susan over the weekend, the ‘telling’ of the story she reads and her flashbacks to her time together with Edward (also Gyllenhaal). These flashbacks aren’t really credible. I haven’t read the novel, but various reviews suggest that Susan and Edward broke up 25 or 20 years ago, after grad school, which would put them in their late 40s. In the film, Susan appears to have been married to the Armie Hammer character for at least 19 years because she has a daughter at college. Hammer is not even 30 but playing Susan’s husband, whereas Adams is 41 and Gyllenhaal 35. It’s a stretch to ask Amy Adams to play 25 and Hammer is completely wrong (unless I’ve misunderstood the plot).
The most interesting part of the film is the West Texas story which features a standout performance by Michael Shannon as the local detective who investigates what happened and cajoles Tony into an unwise adventure. This narrative is realised as a genre piece recalling both the hard-boiled noir of Jim Thompson and various horror stories and crime stories. It’s beautifully photographed by Seamus McGarvey who handles all three narratives very well in visual terms.
From what I’ve read about the novel, I can imagine that it works well. I calculate that Wright must have imagined the ‘now’ of his story as the early 1990s, meaning that Edward and Susan were in graduate school in the late 1960s. I think that would make a difference to the story. Again, Tony in the novel’s story, as a maths professor who is intellectual rather than instinctive, reminds me of the Dustin Hoffman character in Straw Dogs – though he doesn’t have Hoffman’s resilience as depicted by Peckinpah. I do wonder, though, whether Wright was influenced by Straw Dogs or Gordon Williams’ original novel. Tony’s purpose in sending the manuscript to Susan is as a kind of revenge – putting Susan through the torment that he felt when she left him all those years ago. As she reads the story Susan sees herself as the wife and mother in the car (and the mother is played by Isla Fisher, looking so similar to Amy Adams that some audiences have been confused). But also important is that Austin Wright, an academic literature scholar, writes a novel in which a maths professor with literary ambitions sends a genre novel to a college lecturer – a revenge scenario couched in the framework of literary theory/praxis. None of this works when Susan is represented as an art ‘gallerist’. I found her character emotionally stiff and therefore the interconnections just didn’t work for me. The other puzzles are firstly why Ford casts four British actors, three of them as art world denizens – is it something about Brit Art? There is a Damien Hirst piece in the film and also something by Jeff Koons and I suppose the ‘now’ sequences in the film might be seen as some kind of satire on the art world. But I’m not up to analysing that. I recommend an article from ‘Flavorwire‘ for an informed lowdown on this aspect of Nocturnal Animals. There is one other aspect of the film that I haven’t mentioned – Laura Linney’s role as Susan’s bourgeois mother who tells her daughter not to follow the course of her ambitions after graduate school. I’m not sure if she is a character from the novel or one of Ford’s inventions, but she works to repress poor Susan still further.
I realise I’ve spent over 1,000 words on a film I didn’t really like, but I guess that means it is of some interest. I think I’ll now have to read the original novel to see whether my hypothesis was correct – i.e. that it works more effectively. I can also then resolve some of the conflicting points about the characters that appear in reviews.
(Nocturnal Animals was screened in Screen 14 at the Vue, Leeds, The Light – not sure when this screen was added but as a small ’boutique’ screen it is quite different to the larger screens originally built for Ster Century and it has a screen shaped for ‘Scope)
The Master has all the trappings of an ‘event’ film and that is indeed what it has become. Paul Thomas Anderson made the decision to shoot his film on 65mm film, but to release it in a standard 1:1.85 ‘modern widescreen’ ratio rather than CinemaScope (1:2.35) or one of the other widescreen aspect ratios associated with the 1950s ‘roadshow picture’. In an interview in Sight and Sound (December 2012) he recognises that he has created a problem with his ‘chamber’ piece which seems to promise to be something else. He thinks that you should ideally see this work on a 70mm film print. In the UK only one cinema (in London) is showing the film in this way with every other screening offered on digital projection. Not surprisingly, the rush of cinephiles to the Odeon West End placed the film into the Top 20 on its exclusive 70mm run for the first two weeks (the Roadshow idea) and the hype built for the subsequent release to 153 digital screens. However, those 153 digital screens struggled to produce a fraction of the screen average for the 70mm print. Instead The Master now looks like a solid American Independent hit rather than a crossover hit.
I describe this distribution history and its media coverage to highlight the problems facing anyone who wants to write about the film now on release. There are already hundreds of words out there – can I justify adding any more to the pile? There are a few things that haven’t been said and some that need a greater airing so I’ll press on. I should say first that I watched the film with interest, even when I didn’t particularly feel taken by the narrative or the theme. It’s a long film (143 mins) and it requires patience. But surprisingly the time flew by. The cinematography and set design/costumes look stunning and the music soundtrack features some lovely songs some of which are on YouTube – though I didn’t notice Jonny Greenwood’s compositions as much as I did on There Will Be Blood. The central performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are probably what most audiences notice first. I found them both quite disturbing (especially that of Phoenix) but they do make sense in terms of the characters. Less prominent perhaps, but very effective, is Amy Adams. There is no doubt about Anderson’s talents as a director in terms of both developing a grand vision and orchestrating all his resources. The problems I have with the film are associated more with the narrative ideas and the overall theme. This may be more to do with my increasingly dyspeptic view of American culture and American cinema generally.
If you’ve managed to miss the plot descriptions of the film, I should point out that Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a US sailor who after the Second World War is unable to settle in to civilian work and who becomes a drifter – and an alcoholic – who one day stumbles onto the yacht/steamship being used by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a would be guru who is developing a practical philosophy about living in America entitled ‘The Cause’. He is attracted to the sailor, despite the alcoholism and aggressive behaviour, and a strange relationship begins. Dodd’s existing family have some misgivings about accepting the new convert.
The film is ‘about’ the struggle to marry together dreams of ‘freedom’ and the possibilities of affluence in an increasingly conservative American society in the Truman era. The specific time period I find absolutely fascinating but the narrative about ‘fathers’ and ‘sons’ that is blown up to epic proportions is less attractive. It’s possible to make statements through metaphor and the stories of ‘small’ or ‘ordinary’ people, but the ‘Great American Novel’ and Hollywood appear to prefer ‘big’ heroes with big aims – whether they are ‘leaders’ or ‘anti-heroes’. Freddie Quell in Joachin Phoenix’s performance offers a construction with familiar characteristics drawn from a range of famous literary characters who have in turn been personified in high-profile performances. I’m thinking of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Alan Arkin in Catch-22, Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity or Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (an original cinema creation). I’m not claiming any direct resemblance here, rather that these are all characters either remembered from wartime or struggling in the aftermath to maintain some form of independence/freedom in the face of conformity. The difference here is that one familiar character is placed in a relationship with a second, the father figure and visionary character. The problem is that I don’t see this as a new story so much as an endless stream of references. Watching it felt like being in a kind of intertextual dream. I couldn’t work out why we were shown a scene in the desert and I started thinking about Jason Robards and Paul Le Mat in Melvin and Howard (US 1980). Later I read that one of the plot details in the film was based on an anecdote told to Anderson by Robards. At another point when Dodd is ‘processing’ Quell via a set of questions, I thought of Warren Beatty being subjected to propaganda films in The Parallax View (US 1974).
Part of my problem is that I’ve never found Scientology or other cults particularly interesting (the Dodd character and other aspects of the plot are supposed to be informed by Ron L. Hubbard’s story). The ‘real’ story for me would be the era of the HUAC hearings and the development of conservative politics in America. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a significant number of Hollywood creatives came to the UK to escape the witch hunts in the US. The Master plotline also heads for the UK towards the end of the film and these scenes were quite surreal – and again I started to make connections, this time to the Powell & Pressburger films of 1944-46 and their American GI characters.
Whatever problems I had with the theme of the film I have to admit that the film itself has set me thinking and I feel I should watch it again. Anderson apparently took a great deal from two documentaries – one by John Huston on the ‘processing’ of veterans returning from war in 1946 titled Let There Be Light and the other by Lionel Rogosin in 1955 called On the Bowery dealing with drunks on Skid Row (see the interview with Anderson by James Bell in Sight and Sound December 2012). I suspect I might end up watching the DVD.