© 2016 by James Clark
One of the defining features of contemporary history consists in design elbowing art out of the exclusive spotlight it has enjoyed since the days of living in caves. A hundred years ago, at the dawning of surrealist art, sensual proclivities stemming from the motives of the Romantic era saw fit to imbue the constructs of practical life with functions of vision hitherto regarded as profane, as distinct from the sacred status of artistry.
Film art has evinced a fascinating ambiguity in face of this notable shift. The overt craft-design content of that métier has bolstered a priority of design calculated to speak to the more modest pleasures of craft. Those avatars of that industry who could see the point of dovetailing with theatre art have tended to access film schools and their repository of traditional humanistic vision.
Whereas many of the stalwarts of that catch-as-catch-can business have done very well for themselves in reaffirming a tried and true territory, there have been noteworthy exceptions of those with a background of architecture, graphic, industrial and fashion design, surrealist painting, advertising and rock music who march to the sound of a different drummer—a march decidedly at odds with a Renaissance no longer excitingly futural. A recent figure on this horizon is Tom Ford, who, like Ridley Scott, has been and continues to be a player in the world of marketing.
The hallmark of breakaway film being remarkably unorthodox physicality, Ford’s offering in the current year begins with a scene the likes of which you have never seen and never had to negotiate in a study bent on tearing you away from the way you were. Before the camera pulls back from the action at stake (in order to reveal a marketing performance in the service of an opening at an art gallery displaying new fine art paintings), we behold three women, each weighing more than 250 pounds, in a flood of music evoking 1950’s material well-being, gyrating their nude bodies in a parody of college-football cheerleading sweethearts. This startlement includes slow-motion and silence, and tiny sparklers and tiny American flags. Especially riveting is the quasi-undersea current of all this, the pommelling of flab extending in eerie ways. Whatever dramatics the ladies muster is eclipsed by the deterioration, grotesquerie and shock of their presence, one of them almost seeming to have three sets of breasts. On the zoom to reveal a carriage-trade-spare clientele, we are immersed in not merely a gulf between the unsightly and the tended, but a picket-line foretelling conflict. A cut to later in the odd festivity displays three more large performers, each sprawled upon a platform as if a specimen of beef, or hunted wildlife. And from out of this chic precinct of decorative canvases and decorative Los Angelinos, one of our protagonists, Susan, the movie-star-salient owner of the hard-edged modern palace, stands in a state of both privilege and retreat. We know we’re in LA, because the pressure points of distress lead to an electron jump to the wider surround and its galactic highways seen from the skies to be pouring out relentless points of light affording little incisive brilliance.
This strange state of malaise does not take long to get down to brass tacks. Susan’s husband did not attend the moment of vision and she lets him know that, notwithstanding his presumably wheeler-dealer tight schedule, “Fifteen minutes would have meant a lot.” (Presently, he’s away to New York, from which he has just returned, and the expert of art and denizen of concentrated, spare architectural haunts implying daring and integrity calls up and hears the young call girl craftsperson smartly fielding the call.) Susan, whose insomnia is a conversation piece for many associates, eclipses the woes of the graceless dancers (with their unequivocally hostile eyes); and in doing so she becomes a major receptor of doing something about a body close to free-fall. A package arrives next day—after her treading all night through a masterpiece of minimalist design (an update to Renee’s Angst in a Bauhaus castle in David Lynch’s Lost Highway )—containing the soon-to-be published manuscript of her former husband’s novel, titled, Nocturnal Animals, which he puzzlingly dedicates to her.
Getting nowhere by way of her own resources, she latches upon the literary wild card and therewith we are visited by filmic artistry going beyond art as widely understood. In Ford’s hands, we are embarking on a design process of hitting the audience where they really live, in contrast to the bromides having set the pace for millennia. Edward, the ex, apparently doing time in a literary chain-gang, seems to have cozied up with a package Susan had already taken the measure of, in dumping him. But that was Edward the neophyte, seemingly, as we subsequently behold, headed for a life of clerking in book stores and a mother’s (Susan’s mother’s) worst fear. That now he’s a college prof with a book puts him in the tiny sparkler zone. Or does it? We soon hear, from the usual suspect, by flash-back prompted by the narrative yet to be sold by clerks, “Edward is a Romantic, too weak, too sensitive…” The content of the rather bland looking pages addresses his Romantic unsatisfactoriness, and, in fact, the unsatisfactoriness of her own softness (flabbiness), far more difficult to define. (Susan’s mom had argued to her Art History student daughter, “You are very strong-willed… You and I are a lot alike… We all turn out to be our mothers,” which is to say, jerking off for the sake of material advantage. During their brief romance, Susan advised, by way of assuring her rigor, “Debutants [like her] are sluts…” Her mother had interjected at that time of rebellion, “The things you love about him now are the things you’ll hate about him in a few years …” The vehicle which Edward finally gets on the road, and wants her to see, specifically addresses his own and her own ineptness apropos of the ways of an emotive ride upon what could be called a lost highway.
Tony, a sensitive Texan egghead with a geek beard and a vintage Mercedes with the kind of cheap chocolate brown paint job seldom seen (for good reasons)—Edward and Susan having grown up (sort of) in that same Lone Star centre—embarks upon a West Texas vacation with his wife and teen-aged daughter. (Actor, Jake Gyllenhaal, plays both Tony and Edward, the exponents of growing pains. Amy Adams takes charge of any growth spurts in Susan.) Driving at night on a remote stretch of highway, there is the intrusion of a punk-era clunker noisily tailgating them; and there is the girl’s giving the hogs the finger from her back-seat texting centre. The three young rural punks draw up alongside Tony and, better realizing how great an advantage they possess, proceed to bump the Mercedes with a view to forcing it off the pavement. (Tailgating and a dark [lost?] highway bring into this volatile enough sense of doom the very short-tempered and extremely assertive, Mr. Eddy, the porn and prostitution king who, in Lost Highway, does a lot of damage to a tailgater far less reckless than those we have here.) Once deposited and brought to a halt, the holidayers become frozen within locked doors, and their dread increases as the spokesperson of the crime wave accuses Tony of damaging their vehicle and babbles about seeing the police to write out an accident report. The wolf-pack aspects of the highwaymen surrounding the car induce Susan to pause in her tony living room, and savor the horrible fascination about this subterranean geyser. Her dismay about the fictional combat palpably plays into the upscale pacifist horror she has been living.
Edward’s gift has yet to go as far as it can. But, in the meantime, it gets down to business in showing the difference between filmic theatre and filmic laceration. One of the few Texans who eschews firearms and far from an action-comic-book-hero, Tony, while still locked in place, feels something more painful than slings and arrows coming from a constituency with no-questions-asked extermination written all over them. The leader of the pack savors simulating life-is-good brain damage in swinging from outrage about a legal infraction, about his damaged property; and then in promising to fix the flat which the collisions occasioned. In desperation, the protagonist, trying to make some sense of this, leaves a driver’s seat he’s far from in command of. The seemingly reasonable insistence that the women leave the car while it’s jacked up for repair almost immediately spins into horror. A Highway Patrol car races past and the three solid citizens scream and gesture it to deliver on taxes. “There goes your cop,” the master of ceremonies laughs. In protecting the finger-giver, Laura, Tony’s wife and realist, is called “Rich bitch!” From out of these shock waves the whole family gets some physical abuse from this clutch dedicated to redistributing power into the hands of protracted, infantile, clever chickenshit. And that is the best moment going forward from the rude rendezvous. The women are dragged to the precious Mercedes and driven off. Tony, in tears, is made to drive the other bit of historical glibness while the youngest of the pack calls the shots. “Speed up!” Soon they are on a dirt road and they pass a shack in the nocturnal wasteland, where Tony yells, “That’s my car!” The boy tells him he’s mistaken and also offers, “He [the alpha] ain’t killed no one yet…” They eventually stop; and the boy kicks him out. That optimist drives away, but soon the whole gang is back to the impenetrable night, calling out things like, “Your wife wants you!” Tony, hiding amidst a pile of rocks, does not reply. Someone says, “Shit! Why’d you let him go?” and the night ends with disappointment all-round.
It can and does get even worse, before getting better. Looking a bit like the protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, There Will Be Blood, Tony is seen shivering and limping as dawn brings far from glad tidings. He makes it to the highway, finds a motel and phones the police. The police, we find, to our surprise and delight, are of two minds about laying down the law to those evincing gluttonous jerking off. The unorthodox lone man, Detective Bobby Andes, takes up Tony’s case quietly and probingly recognizes that the errancy of the victim is of far more interest than that a group of run of the mill vermin. (Did the boy snap out of it for a moment in letting Tony go?) “You had no gun?” he asks, with an unspoken, “Why the hell not?” “They didn’t have any guns?” is a gambit that twists the knife, already destroying vital organs, even more ruthlessly. But rare Bobby can, even before corpses turn up, see a silver lining; and, in the tracing of (wrong) steps back to that shack in the desert (the connection to Antonioni’s Red Desert beginning to feed into that feeding frenzy), his laconic body language adds a sense of partnership with the man failing badly. (He’ll remark that the police heard of another intrusion, earlier that night, but that the target chased them off. Bobby, though, does not present this added embarrassment as a cruel dig, but rather in the course of turning the tide—for both of them.) Therefore, on finding, on a porch reminiscent of Penny’s Ozark orbit in Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, Tony’s wife and daughter positioned together, on a bordello-red sofa, in such a way as to evoke a porn movie, Bobby overlooks Tony’s (improvable) shambles in asking, “Is she [Bobby examining Laura’s steel-inflicted fractured skull] alright?” In replying, “She’s dead,” there is no reproof, only regrouping. As he tells the presently incompetent victim—of a world where there are in fact far more lucid options than loving all 7 billion dubious perceptions out there—that his daughter was beaten, raped and suffocated, Bobby is more a friend-in-need than a criminology bureaucrat.
A year passes, and Bobby and Tony somehow endure the reign of criminology. Then the lesser two highwaymen are out of luck in performing armed robbery at a supermarket, one being killed at the site and the other arrested. The latter’s fingerprints being matched with some of those in the shack, there ensues a case of absence having made the heart grow…something else—something not focused. A new, clean-shaven Tony, in contrast to the earlier geeky, trendy beard, identifies Lou the optimist, shows new-found eagerness to testify; and the process of justice unauthorized by a classical rational tradition being discerned to lack credibility gains the traction for what you might call a Texas thought-experiment. Bobby traces the third and far from least dreary of the gang members, namely Ray Marcus, by prints at the killing ground; and his smarts discover what he calls home. They come upon him performing a bowel movement on his porch-toilet (apparently, he’s a part-time plumber) whereby the detective devises a spectacle of his own, launched by, “Let’s talk to him…” Bobby knows that bringing the killer in is likely to be a revolving door (the DA open to deals with defense lawyers); but bringing a less feeble Tony into the mix makes it all worthwhile. (In that intervening year, Tony is not the only one markedly changed. Bobby has a cancer on his lung that has metastasized and he has a year at most to live.) Ray is predictably hostile and on the lawman’s showing his badge the justice-moxie predator reflexively talks of his “rights,” a notion you can see by Bobby’s body language that he holds in disdain. The runaround about that terrible night, with a murderous Tony now looking him in the eye leaves the impression that it is Ray’s world, not theirs. Sure enough, he’s released due to “insufficient corroboration;” and Bobby then, speaking not as a patsy but a man who sees the point of pushing the envelope, asks his friend, “How serious are you about seeing justice done?” By way of a partial answer, Tony inquires into the inflected authority’s range of friendship. All he can recall is an estranged daughter he hasn’t seen in a long while. But now there is Tony, sort of, saying, despite seemingly with a future—but perhaps not a future he wants to play out—that he’s OK with vigilante justice by way of the removal of Lou from maximum security and the removal of Ray from his friends in high places.
The mixed results of this full-speed-ahead attest to the problematical nature of the limits of control. Taking the killers to a hunting blind of Bobby’s in that desolate region of woe, there is the carcinogenic power having to rush to the bathroom to vomit and Tony’s not finding in himself to shoot when the animals bolt. Bobby is able to stop Lou in his tracks; but not Ray. That he dispatches the wounded optimist with a swift, indifferent blast in the head, the way Dead Man, his mojo in gear, popped off (as though he were a rattlesnake) the surviving posse member, in Jarmusch’s Dead Man, speaks to the wide circulation of extreme measures in lieu of a planet worth loving, measures, truth to tell, keeping Susan from sleep.
Ray, needing to be bagged pronto, Bobby concludes he’ll head for the highway and that that would be his responsibility, leaving residually humanitarian Tony to check into that long-shot nearby shack where so much had and continues to have difficult meaning. Ray’s confidence, at that obscene and beloved shelter, that Tony would once again fail to pull the trigger proves to be erroneous and he ends up with a bullet not needing a second one. Not, however, before Ray can smash is face with a steel poker which leaves him (rather aptly) blind and, on awakening at daybreak, staggering out of that place of death, tripping on some sagebrush and, in doing so, shooting himself. Strange that this showy melodrama devolves to Bobby and his more radical ways, however unsatisfactory! That was the last we see of him, making mincemeat out of the inconsequential little snot, but not the last we think of him. Someone else forcibly touched by this virtuoso architecture in the mode of surrealist marketing is Susan, our conduit to the carnage. The saga just ended had, in fact, been punctuated several times by her shock and reflection, from which her own business and domestic experiences would spill like an endless hemorrhage, ricocheting between new hardness, old hardness and old softness. The opening salvo of this skirmish between Lotus Land and Lone Star consists of the obese ladies bringing on the credits, the literary component. Susan’s soft life being invaded by doubts about the efficacy of the art she sells and the husband/ stranger she had been sold on by her (on one level clearly useless) mother, Edward’s gift pulls her into something foreign and necessary. The deeper she absorbs the ways of Bobby and Ray (and the inconsistency of Tony), the more absurdly shallow her dream of being a winner “in the real world” appears.
On the eve of receiving the gift, a friend, aware of Susan’s floundering, moots with unintentional irony, “You’re just being hard on yourself.” In this same flow of lostness, she asks her receptionist, “Do you ever feel like your life has turned into something you never intended?” At the point, then, of first letting fly the manuscript as reaching the moment of the two women being dragged off by the pirates, with Tony helpless and taunted, “Vagina boy!”—in face of never having grasped life’s cowardly viciousness—she is seen frantically slamming its momentum to a close; and then she goes on to her own slap in the face in the insult- to-injury of the underage call-girl displaying that Manhattan cosmopolitanism can be a lot like Texas redneck appetite. Though morbidity has run the table, Susan can’t let go—her sensibility rising precisely on the work’s cue to find a rally amidst an outrage that only extreme and dangerous measures can deal with. An indication of her absorption can be seen regarding a moment showing Tony at the motel, drowning in sadness in lying in a bath, and then a cut to her also near the end of her tether, settling into the fabulous bath in the middle of an insomniac night. The flash-back to Edward’s and her college romance may take place in self-demanding NYC; but their having the luxury to dabble with big writing and big visual art locates them somewhere else, somewhere soft. Susan tells her mother, “I don’t want to be like you.” But her every breath tells us she will also not want to contemplate a world of nocturnal animals and deadly [and thrilling] self-control. A cut to the Board of the museum she serves on [and sells to] brings to bear another such expert, wearing a composition of jet-black segments pronounced by a snow-white ground, the likes of which we saw in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (2015). Here, though, instead of the hard dynamics of the earlier work, the wearer of that garb gushes about her app to transmit her baby’s every move back home.
Susan’s being strongly touched by the novel is not in doubt. (The widespread notion that she’s fearful that the work is a death threat to her is utter nonsense.) After the first instalment covering the dark highway, she emails Edward to congratulate him in his attainment to true art and accedes to his covering letter about meeting “anywhere you want.” The depth of her transformation is another matter, a matter bringing her closer to the rhapsodic and disastrous construct of the MSthan her tepid inventory and feeble involvements might suggest. The dandy at the dinner party who tells her, “I loved your junk-culture show! Nobody really likes what they do. When we were young we felt life had meaning. But it’s best to drop that and enjoy the absurdities of life,” had already become one of many lives she wouldn’t miss at all. Nor would the actress at that same affair be a loss(even though she’s headed for an Oscar) with her presumably lovable earthiness, telling them all that an applique to her pussy smoothed out post-childbirth. On the other hand, Susan appears to be at a loss to transcend cliché, in her remembered homage to what she once believed in as to Edward’s being “strong in another way.” An upshot of that feminist questionableness arises during the Board meeting, where, pondering upon the provocations of the novel, she contradicts a previous recommendation of firing a non-functioning curator, for the sake of some kind of miracle taking place. “We need to help her…”What, during these crosscurrents, to make of, then, her walking past a sculpture of a mountain sheep pierced with many arrows, which brings on board Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Ghost Dog and Broken Flowers? Is that another sleep-killer inasmuch as it demands a capacity to care for wild things as entailing a different strength? Along with that likely banana peel, there is another draft of perpetually painful night, in the form of a chi-chi graffiti sculpture, self-consciously “cool” in spelling out, RE/VEN/GE.(During the chat with the Malick figure, as she is treated to the mother’s phone displaying the baby in her crib, she imagines seeing a flash-image of a rapist attacking that immaculate conception, and she drops the device, rendering it useless.)
The evolution of Tony is brought to us (and to her) with impressive subtlety and phenomenological range. Though in the wake of Ray’s release our protagonist is galvanized to eliminate a self-evidently worthless figure, when the moment of truth arrives the humanistic solace which had formed his bedrock carries the day. Tony cries, “I should have stopped it! I should have stopped it!” Bobby, not unaware that the unusual hardness was lacking in some respect, declares, “It’s OK…. You’re a good man…” Yet the good man reaches the shack where illegal violence is a given. Never at a loss for lurid insult, Ray prefaces his supposed unstoppable trash-talk with the courthouse parody, “It [the finger and Laura’s angry remarks] gives me the right… when my pride is hurt… It’s fun to kill people…” Tony responds by crying out, “Did you think it was fun to kill my wife and daughter?” In turn, Ray makes sucking sounds as he proceeds with being sure to kill the academic by way of the hidden poker which was probably used to fracture Laura’s skull. Before he can use it, Tony has boiled over and shoots, a shooting, were there some way to record the humanist’s point of view at that moment, which would no longer derive from the sanctity of every human entity. By the time he uses the gun on himself, he might be back with where he was when being a dutiful budding academic; but the release of that electron goes a long way in comprehending the actions of Edward, the academic and author, going forward.
Nocturnal Animals places demands upon the viewer commensurate to the struggles of Tony. The rousing but infinitely unstable affair with courage and grace tears up not only West Texas but Beverly Hills and its million dollar, Mulholland Drive view. Just as Rita, in the film about that latter prospect, comes as a big surprise as a rare hope (in face of revenge) ensconced in Club Silencio, Susan, who can’t even sleep, let alone effectively function at any other level, emerges as another of those nearly incredibly rare hopes for meaning beyond smug sleepwalking. When we take things in here, we realize that Melville, Jarmusch, De Palma and Malick are not the only filmmakers thrilled by the prospect of, as Susan described Edward to her incredulous mother, being “strong in another way.”Would that be the way of Giuliana, in Antonioni’s Red Desert , which broaches the arresting situation of a chic wife and mother, with a history of debilitating emotional instability, who despises both her husband and child [her family and everyone in sight]; and yet ekes out a dark joy within such comprehensively hostile territory?
Susan’s comprehension of that gentle strength she has imagined to be readily understandable along lines of the liberal arts comes in for major revision inasmuch as Edward (whose child she had been carrying during their split, only to abort it) does not show up at the restaurant of her choice, his motive for sending the preview being a demonstration of new-found strength in a problematical (in his, and Tony’s, case massively, self-contradictively garbled) world, a “strength” presumed to cohere with the cheap, resentful stunt of standing her up. These considerations evoked by Tom Ford’s hauntingly beautiful film set in relief just how far beyond business as usual the craft of film can and has become.