I’m a big Amy Adams fan. Most of the movies she’s in she appears to be attempting to break away from her reputation as being “perky” and most of the time she doesn’t totally succeed, while at the same time displaying excellent acting ability. Right now she’s in two artsy movies simultaneously, which are Arrival and Nocturnal Animals, and I’ve seen them both. I may cover Arrival later but I’m going to use Nocturnal Animals to riff on “meta-cinema”, more specifically, movies about the nature of the creative process.
The list of movies in this category are endless. They are even longer if you expand them to include movies that just talk about the nature of of our perception of reality itself. If you were to do that, then Doctor Strange AND Arrival would both be included, as Doctor Strange is very Matrix-like and Arrival explores how our relationship with language impacts our perceptions (including granting clairvoyance).
They say write what you know, and that catch-phrase is actually IN Nocturnal Animals, but it also applies to the film as a whole. Film writers write what they know and what they know best is what it means to write in the first place.
Someone who was especially aware of the nature of cinema was Orson Welles. I’ve referred to F for Fake before, and I believe there’s really no better essay on the nature of suspension of disbelief.
The difference between something like F for Fake and Nocturnal Animals is that F for Fake is very overt in covering the topic of storytelling as artful lying. Nocturnal Animals and other films like it are, on the surface, traditional entertainment and the meta aspects are more of a sub-text.
The frustration I think filmmakers have with the general public is that, like the magician (and Orson Welles himself was a passionate amateur magician) he contains a bag of tricks that can fool the audience. The audience is unaware of how they are fooled again and again. To the magician, these tricks seem obvious, but the audience is completely blind to it. They are simply suckered in like a victim of an expert con-game.
Nocturnal Animals presents a framing device so that, from the outset, you are being told that the thriller is a story-within-a-story. Amy Adams is progressively reading through a manuscript. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.
And yet if you were to strip away the framing device, because of how the inner story is presented, it’s very easy to simply react to it as if that’s the entire movie and nothing else. The longer the story stays inside the inner thriller the more you lose sight of the fact that this is merely a visualization of Amy Adams reading. You are then periodically YANKED back into the outer layer of Amy Adams’ drama with her failing relationship with the boy-toy and the mysterious process of getting back in touch with her ex (the author).
Ultimately Nocturnal Animals is just as much an essay on the psychology of consuming story as F for Fake, but it also has some dark things to say about what it means to be a writer as well. It’s possible to write with an axe to grind, to wield the pen as a weapon, but to use coded language that only the target can see. When the writer sends the manuscript to her, on the surface the overture is peaceful, and yet it is laced with passive aggression. Just the mere insinuation (via the title that he once used as a nickname for his ex) of connection between the story and their relationship plants the seeds upon which she creates her own free associations. He knows that even if certain connections and symbols were not put there intentionally, she may find them, construct them, get stressed out over them.
I used to have a romanticized view of the writer as a benign philosopher who could hold up a mirror to human nature in a way that helps us gain wisdom. And I think this is a possibility, but it all depends on authorial intend. If the writer wants to uplift, he can. But he can also grind axes and then hide behind the plausible deniability of art. Writers are experts at human psychology to the extent that they are fully capable of emotional manipulation, either for good or bad purposes. They use this as a tool in their trade, and they can easily use this out in the meat-space as well. As they say, with great power comes great responsibility. The other film that comes most to mind in this genre is Death Trap, which was spun things towards dark comedy.
You could say my entire blog has been an attempt to encourage people to examine their engagement with media. The more you know about why you’re so drawn to certain things the more you may gain a greater understanding of yourself. If you are what you eat, one of the things you “consume” is entertainment. Just as we should pay more attention to what we shove into our mouths we should also think more actively about what we read, watch, and listen-to and what kind of impact it has on us over time.
My feeling is that human beings live a great deal of their live in a daydreaming stupor. This is because the present is simply too unpleasant or just plain dull. We see ourselves as the protagonist in a story. We replay chapters from the past and fantasize about what we can possibly achieve in the future (or dread that our options are dwindling). When we consume media we try to identify with it to our lives. Does it reinforce or clash with it? Is it comforting or disturbing? This friction between how we view ourselves and the world around us, how we want to see the world, and how it’s presented in fiction makes up a large part of our subjective opinion of a work being “good” or “bad”.
When it comes to Nocturnal Animals in particular, not to spoil it, but I have a problem with stories with downbeat endings. The message of the film is, at best, a cautionary tale. Neither Amy Adams nor Jake Gyllenhaal were truly sympathetic, although the film seems to want to project more sympathy onto Gyllenhaal as the victim.
The reason why I feel Gyllenhaal’s character is unsympathetic has to do with my own feelings about the nature of romantic relationships, rejection, attachment, and grief. The film makes it clear that Gyllenhaal’s heart was broken by Adams’ character and that this created a mortal wound in his self-esteem. I can relate to that as I’ve had experiences similar to that. However, over time I’ve realized that the misery from rejection can only be sustained when you yourself maintain a sort of attachment to the object of the rejection. You ascribe too much meaning to the rejection. In other words, that one rejection becomes a personal litmus-test. I have learned over time that one person’s rejection is just that–one person’s rejection. It does not mean that all others will reject you. It could also mean nothing more than that person wasn’t right for you. The friction that comes from the fact that both people may have been in love doesn’t invalidate the rejection. I’ve been able to separate love from commitment. It’s possible for two people to feel love and yet also come to the conclusion that they don’t function properly as a “couple”. It’s a difficult thing to accept, and yet I believe this to be true.
I feel that the film overlooked this viewpoint to the extent that I’m not sure the writer even realizes any of this. I felt that in his mind the moral of the picture is more one of karma. Adams’ wounded Gyllenhaal’s character and that came around later to bite her in the ass. She winds up feeling a combination of regret that she lost her best shot at happily ever after AND the sting of being dissed by him as an act of psychological revenge. So I can’t help but wonder whether the writer of the film himself was exercising his own axe to grind in producing this film.
The kind of film I would prefer is one in which characters that are locked into these sorts of self-destructive spirals somehow has a breakthrough and overcomes it. While these cautionary tales may indirectly point to other ways of behaving, they do not really spell it out the way films in which characters turn over a new leaf do. That is why ultimately films like these depress me by feeding my cynicism over human nature and how we are all architects of our own misery.
So I can’t say it’s a bad film, but it is not the kind of film that I really enjoy watching because of the negative conclusions it seems to be drawing about human nature. Your mileage may vary.