February 17, 2017

Nocturnal Animals [2016] – A Slyly Complex Revenge Thriller

Spoilers Ahead…………..

Fashion-designer turned film-maker Tom Ford’s second feature film Nocturnal Animals (2016) is tightly packaged with two contrasting story lines. One is about a sad woman leading vacuous, bourgeois life whose inner pain doesn’t appear on her stiff face. The other is about a man tripping through the dirty, dry ‘real’ world whose existential pain twists his body and emotions to make life a whole lot messier. “Our world is lot less painful than the real world” are the wise words said to insomniac, wealthy art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) in the earlier part of the narrative. The pain of ‘real world’ is actually equated with experiencing physical violence. Susan with all her emotional dislocation may find solace in the fact that she is only touched by emotional violence. Yet, as she learns, violence – whatever its form – is a bane to the human condition. 

Nocturnal Animals is based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. In the novel/movie’s universe Susan is ‘real’ and Tony is ‘fictional’. Middle-aged Susan is married to a wealthy but emotionally distant husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). One day, she receives a package from ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Edward wanted to be a writer and Susan’s own skepticism about his literary aspirations caused a rift between them. Susan’s desire for a more structured (wealthy) lifestyle is also another reason. She has left him in a brutal manner after staying married for two years. Susan has tried to contact him all these years without any good results. Now Edward has sent her the manuscript of his soon-to-be-published novel titled ’Nocturnal Animals’ and he has dedicated it to Susan. The insomniac Susan who has no one to keep her company puts on her spectacles, lays on a plush sofa and starts reading the novel.

Texan Tony Hastings is making a trip on the night to West Texas with his wife and teenage daughter India. Tony is a simple, fragile husband/dad who is terrorized by three malicious rednecks – Lou, Turk and the leader Ray Marcus (Aaron-Taylor Johnson). It’s a sequence that’s as harrowing as the one from Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), peppered with some Lynchian ingredients. Susan closes the manuscript at times, overwhelmed by the ‘real’ pain inflicted on the seemingly good family. She catches her breath and in brief flashbacks thinks of the pain she has caused upon Edward in the past. In Edward’s Nocturnal Animals, Tony’s wife and daughter are abducted. He is dumped at the middle of nowhere. Next day, with the help of hard-nosed police detective Roberto Andes (Michael Shannon) Tony traces the abductor’s place, finding the neatly arranged naked dead bodies of his wife and daughter. 

Ray is a monster. There’s no thread in Edward’s story to portray him as complex figure. There’s nothing humane about Ray. We want him to be killed and possibly in the most cruel way. Circumstances lead Tony to receive the unbridled help of Andes (who is actually dying of lung cancer). When the law fails to uphold justice, the duo become ready to deliver it. May be vengeance and the violence involved will provide an emotional catharsis for Tony. If not, at least it will bring satisfaction for those reading this pulp fiction. Surprisingly, retribution only brings self-destruction and self-punishment to Tony. The violence doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t soothe the ‘real’ pain. Tony sinks down with monstrous Ray into the ocean of death. And, as they say, ‘Death is the fairest thing. It takes all kind – the good, and the cruel’. What does ‘fictional’ Tony’s plight got to do with ‘real’ Susan? Why Edward wants Susan to read his novel? What’s the connection between devastating violence faced by Tony and emotional bruise held by Edward (both played by Gyllenhaal)? And what’s with the enigmatic ending? 

Nocturnal Animals gives a very interesting movie experience during the second-viewing, since I was able to de-construct a lot of obvious parallels, which seemed like cryptic code in the first-time watch. Director/writer Tom Ford could be accused of being cold & calculated and for not deeply penetrating the character's emotional surface. These are the kind of accusations often associated with the works of Stanley Kubrick. Yes, the narrative is so neatly tailored with visuals and themes tightly wrapped around. Like Susan’s style-over-substance lifestyle, the film makes a rigid, awesome-looking statement, devoid of profound substance. May be it’s too on-the-nose (like the exhibition of ‘Revenge’ art to suggest what it’s all about). But still Nocturnal Animals is a highly intriguing roller-coaster ride. The highly challenging, jarring visual juxtapositions and the pricking pain of emotional violence in the final sequence are wonders to behold. 

I haven’t read the novel. But it feels like a perfect adaptation that flawlessly fits into the film-maker’s singular visual language. Tom Ford has made some courageous choices with the script, especially in the design of opening sequences. Old, over-weight, naked women gyrate inside a big box, holding sparkling fireworks. The sagging breasts of these cheering woman teeters here and there, unlike the perfectly calibrated frames of Tom Ford. What does the creator of this live ‘art’ trying to showcase? If art mirrors life, Susan may be trying to tell how there isn’t much difference between her soul-crushing, beautiful-looking life and the wobbling naked flesh which is immediately deemed as ‘ugly’. It’s her cry of despair against the junk culture.The menace in the ‘fictional’ universe is elegantly mixed with the emotional bruise of ‘real’ in many occasions. The image of two reddish-orange haired corpses lying in a red sofa is juxtaposed with a similar arrangement of Susan’s living daughter. The bright red-light that falls on Edward’s face is gracefully cut to similar shot involving Tony. Similar to the interrelation between naked flesh and Susan’s existence in the opening scene, these artistic choices finely expresses the transition in and out of the ‘fictional’ and ‘real’ universe. 

Loss, betrayal, and vengeance are the primary themes of the movie. However, the most interesting aspect for me is the theme of art resonating with emotional reality of its consumers. In a brief flashback, Susan criticizes Edward’s story for being so much about himself. Edward’s novel written nearly two decades after his separation with Susan is also about him. Edward just takes all the emotional violence that was inflicted upon him and passes it onto fictional character, employing a much hard-hitting set-up. Edward has also lost his wife and daughter to an intruder. Of course, it’s nothing compared to the brutal loss of ‘fictional’ Tony. Through the revenge fantasy in the novel, Edward is not only exorcising his own emotional pain, but also criticizing himself for allowing the rift to happen. Tony shouting at Andes for not ‘protecting’ his family and Ray calling Tony ‘weak’ are exaggerated manifestations of what Edward felt after the breakup with Susan.

While Tony’s revenge plan is slightly sloppy and totally self-destructive, Edward’s plan is so calculative and emotionally cathartic (it looks like that). The bloody corpse of Ray may be a much-preferred, cathartic sight than the image of lonely Susan sipping her cocktail in the classy restaurant. But Edward is the one who serves his 'revenge' cold to Susan. The revenge in the ‘real’ world may not seem much in terms of dynamic visuals as the vengeful action in the ‘fiction’. Nevertheless, it’s the only kind Edward could achieve. Through the devastating tale of Tony, he has kind of won her back (Susan leaving her wedding ring is some kind of sign, isn’t it?). For Susan, the novel feels real and truthful than the empty life. By making her sit alone in the emptying restaurant, Edward makes her to confront the deepening void. For some, this rejection may seem to be a trivial matter, but for Susan the unoccupied chair in front of her is materialization of the existential emptiness. The brunt of emotional violence lies deep beneath the exterior surface that’s sipping expensive cocktails. 


Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (117 minutes) is an artfully composed, devilishly clever tale of loss and revenge. It’s nesting doll narrative and awesome ensemble cast demonstrates how violence slashes more than skin deep.



January 31, 2017

Land and Shade [2015] – An Austere Art-House Drama with Painterly Visuals

The ruthless dimension of neoliberalism is the main culprit for the social problems faced by a Colombian family of four in Cesar Augusto Acevedo’s nuanced drama Land and Shade (2015, La Tierra y la Sombra). The land is scarred, covered with dust and soot due to the sugar industry’s controlled fires of the near-by cane fields. People are either displaced or succumb to prevailing diseases and poverty. The fragility of the powerless is plainly visible in the faces of people working on the charred fields with machetes. With no identity, history and sometimes even a family to hold onto, all these people hope for is the promised economic progress. But the overwhelming power leaves the poor people to be choked out in their own home. Land and Shade has a thread-bare narrative, which focuses on deepest human feelings than making a overt social message. The evocative static shots, punctuated by slow camera movements may keep many in a languid mood, while other patient viewers may experience the film’s nuanced quality of getting under one’s skin.

Director Cesar Acevedo confides that Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky are his favorite film-makers. It shows in the director’s film form, which is intent on capturing the inner passions underlying beyond the characters’ surface emotions. Acevedo observes space and time, the relation between bodies and emotions, and even the smallest of gestures to dig deep into the hostile capitalistic forces. The movie opens with a static, long shot as we see an elderly man named Alfonso (Haimer Leal) walking down a dusty road confined in-between lush cane fields. A giant truck attached with four big containers slowly comes up the road. Alfonso nestles himself inside the fields as the truck thunderously passes him, raking up huge clouds of dust. The bleak grey has long become the shade of this beautiful land. Alfonso has returned to his family in rural Colombia after a 17 year absence. He is there to look after his adult son Gerardo (Edison Raigosa), who has chronic respiratory problems from having worked on the sugar plantations. Gerardo’s wife Esperanza (Marleyda Soto) and Alfonso’s estranged, resentful wife Alicia (Hilda Ruiz) take the job in the fields.

The non-unionized work forces wastes away their health in the burned-out cane fields for a pittance. The poor family which can’t afford a doctor for Gerardo’s ailment could only close the windows to keep off air pollution (soot rain down from nearby burn-offs in the fields). Hence, Gerardo rests in room, enshrouded by darkness, indicating the inevitability of his fate. The sticky paws of giant industries hold the land in a way to shape the disintegration of family unit. Even the domestic interaction of family members often rests on the discussion of unceasing social troubles. The only person who still withholds the wonder for nature is Alfonso’s six year old grandson Manuel (Jose Felipe Cardenas). In the placid days, the grandpa and grandson build feeding table under a giant tree nearby, for the birds. But, death and agony always broods over the horizon. Death materializes in the way Gerardo is covered in white blanket when he lies on the backside of a small truck to go the hospital; pain reverberates in the frames, when the two women workers are ruthlessly exploited for paltry sum. What do these people do in such a wretched atmosphere? They keep open their hearts and just keep on going.

Director Cesar Acevedo and cinematographer Mateo Guzman, both working on their first film, have done a marvelous job in shooting the interior scenes with low lighting. In one scene, Alfonso opens a window when sitting for lunch with his grandson. The boy insists to close the window as no pollution can enter their little nest. The family’s survival depends on this wilful confinement. The majority of static shots open with characters already positioned in the frames indicating their confined status. In one sequence, there is the rare free-flowing camera movement, which actually turns out to be a dream sequence. Even in the outdoor shots, warm-palette coats the frames insinuating the dangers lying beyond their family unit. The birds (& the horse in dream) which symbolizes the freedom or freewill are never seen (only their soulful voices are heard). The long takes of Alfonso cleaning the dusty leaves and sweeping off the ash surrounding the green plants says a lot about the collateral damages of exploiting the land.

Acevedo’s storytelling method often dwells on the physical and emotional proximity of the characters. He finds tenderness and deep love in the smallest of gestures. Alfonso shielding Manuel and his ice cream from the dust; Gerardo and Manuel hugging inside the white blanket while traveling on the backside of truck; or the shot of estranged old couples jointly cleaning the body of their son – these smallest of things withholds immense power to straightly speak to our hearts. Amidst all the cruel situations, the simple movements to showcase love are captivating to look at. When Alfonso and his Alicia attain proximity they seem to attain it through shared love and pain. It may seem a very simple thing, yet it looked so beautiful to me. At times, the visuals do seem rigidly controlled, spreading a little disconnection from totally absorbing their suffering. Nevertheless, those are minor flaws in what could be called as a magnificent debut feature (Acevedo won Camera d’Or at Cannes, for best directorial debut). It is also understandable on why the director didn’t delve deeply into the story of cane cutters (played by real life workers). The intention was to just tell the simple story of a fragile family (the potent political statement could be saved for his next film. 



Land and Shade (97 minutes) is a glacially-paced poignant drama about the emotional and physical destruction of a vulnerable family unit. The muted and cumulative power of its visuals contemplates a lot about the belligerency of capitalism than any sharp statements. 



  La tierra y la sombra -- IMDb

January 26, 2017

The High Sun [2015] – Love Tarnished by Bitter Conflict

Croatian film-maker Dalibor Matanic made his directorial debut at the age of 25 with The Cashier Wants to go to the Seaside (2000), a darkly comic romance/drama. Unlike the majority of Balkan films made after the disintegration of Yugoslavia (in the early 1990s), Matanic’s works concentrates less on the politics and more on the themes of humanism. In his second film Fine Dead Girls, Matanic used acerbic characters, residing in a small apartment complex to weave a microcosm of the post-independence, recession-era Croatia. Despite cynicism and disturbing scenes of violence, Matanic’s central characters overcome their cursed fate through unbridled display of compassion and hope. The director’s eighth & recent film The High Sun aka Zvizdan (2015) is much broader in scope (both in terms of budget and theme) and he once again uses universal themes of love, hate, and passion to explore the fractured history of his nation.

The High Sun, winner of Jury Award at Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, follows the impact of ethnic hatred on the romantic relationship of inter-ethnic couples. The film tells three different stories, set in three different decades of two neighboring villages – one Serbian and other Croatian. The catch is that the same two lead actors play the different romantic leads in the stories set in the years 1991, 2001, and 2011. In the prewar story (in 1991), we see young Jelena (Goran Markovic) and Ivan (Tihana Lazovic) enjoying their idyllic summer day, cavorting on the edge of a beautiful lake. They are rebellious and so much in love that they have decided to leave their respective villages the next day and settle in Zagareb city. The Romeo and Juliet witnesses the first seeds of chaos as line of military jeeps move over the lush fields. Jelena’s elder brother Sasha is drafted to army and he seethes with rage for his sister choosing a guy ‘from the other side’. Sasha’s hate shines through Jelena and Ivan’s prism of love leading to a shocking end.

In the second episode (in 2001), the war is already over and a moody girl Natasa returns with her mother to war-torn family home, which is now in the enemy territory. The empty place reeks with the memory of Natasa’s brother who is killed in the war. Natasa withdraws herself into a shell as the mother tries to rebuild the place and life. A young repairmen Ante of the ‘other’ ethnic community is brought in to rebuild. There seems to be no chance for a romance between the young ones as Natasa can’t let go of the fact that Ante’s people were responsible for the death of her beloved brother. However, she learns how others have also suffered and cursed to be in a permanent state of despair. A reconciliation of sorts happens, yet the poisonous past hinders the blossoming of love. In the third episode (in 2011), university student Luka arrives for a party at his hometown. The good-old days seems to have returned to the town, yet the unhealed wounds of the past opens up when Luka goes to meet Marika, the lover whom he neglected. Luka hopes to find redemption and escape from the tragedy of the past.

The three episodes in The High Sun have a very simple and predictable narrative arc. Some may wonder if the film would have been more captivating with tight editing (the film runs close to 2 hours). But the slow-burning approach worked for me, thanks to interesting visual choices of director Dalibor Matanic. Matanic’s mature nuanced vision and attention to small details makes up for the easily foreseeable story arc.  Cinematographer Marko Brdar brilliantly captures the nature; he especially excels in arresting the sunlight within the frames. Matanic goes for Bressonian close-ups (of legs, hands – to portray the emotional unrest) than the traditional close-ups of the face. The magnificent landscape itself becomes one of the characters as it reflects the humans’ inner wounds. The paradisiacal Lake present in the three episodes of the film is amazingly showcased. A dip in the lake in the respective romantic tales provides a purifying experience. The other recurring visual motif in the film is the silent witness. In fact, silent witnesses are always present in Matanic’s films. In The High Sun, a watchful dog and a compassionate dad are the silent witnesses. They are just like us with no control over the events, yet forced to watch everything. Doors, gravestones, and dark tunnel-like passages are the other recurring visual motifs. These motifs either signals the freedom of an individual from his/her own bruised self or their inability to escape the dark past.     

Director Matanic’s visual flair stands out in three sequences: the aggression and tension towards the end of first episode; the raw sexual tension in the second; and the wild techno scene in the third. These three sequences are astoundingly staged as they become a movie within a movie. Take the fate of trumpet playing protagonist Ivan in the first story. The music he plays by standing in the edge of enemy territory becomes the call for his lover. And, when the music finally stops, Matanic focuses on the dropped-down trumpet as we now only hear the cries. This simple sequence opens with beauty and ends in chaos. If you contemplate on a sequence that happens in the third episode (the one I mentioned above), the opposite happens: moving from chaos to moment of clarity (near the lake). Of course, the raw sex scene was so memorable; because it closely captures the character’s (Natasa’s) unbridled lust and the emptiness and emotional pain that follow up.  In spite of the brilliant film form, it wouldn’t have been powerful if not for the challenging lead performances from Markovic and Lazovic. They add distinct character traits to their three respective young roles. In an interview, Mr. Matanic was asked, ‘why he used same actors for each story?’, to which he replied, “By repeating familiar faces through stories I wanted to create a subconscious effect in the audience such that they would be aware of the possibility of history repeating itself and that all the characters are in fact one body at the end – they are one love, no sexes, one hope.” He and his actors seem to have perfectly succeeded in conveying that effect. 


 The High Sun aka Zvizdan (122 minutes) reflects on the collective wounds of violence and hatred in a community through three simple stories of love. The stunning, interpretative visual language does an oxymoronic blend of passionate and traumatic emotions [director Dalibor Matanic has said that this film is the first part in his ‘Trilogy of the Sun’]. 



Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru aka D-16 [2016] – A Skillfully Executed Thriller

A bulletin-point report:

  • When I was 21 years old I had a hard time to unravel the identity of killers in some of the excellent crime fictions. Now here is a guy named Karthick Naren who has designed a good, puzzling thriller at the age of 21.
  • In this era of brilliant web and TV series, it’s not easy to come up with an engaging idea for a murder mystery. The first plus for Naren’s Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru aka D-16 is that I was completely hooked on to it. Like every other murder mystery, we have unreliable narrator, red-herrings, lucky breaks, gradual accumulation of information, and even underwhelming, ludicrous twists. Yet, the sensible aesthetics is the biggest selling point; more so than the inherent mystery.
  • The opening scene looks a bit stilted. We witness a very average staging of a crime scene. But he is able imprint what he wants to in our mind. A man sporting a face mask eerily walks through the rainy night. His target appears to be a young woman celebrating her birthday with boyfriend. Chaos reigns. We get the feeling that a cold-hearted killer is on the prowl.
  • The narrative fast-forwards to five years as our retired cop protagonist Deepak (Rahman) sits for a tea to talks about his last, unsolved interconnected murder & missing case. The party eager to hear this tale is a strange young man, who wants to join the police force.
  • Five years before, Deepak was called to investigate the suicide case of a young man (found with a head-shot) which turns out to be a homicide. Furthermore, a young woman is reported to be missing from her apartment flat. There are traces of blood in the wall. Three young men driving through the rain-soaked, residential streets hit and kill a man. Deepak investigates the strange link between the incidents with his efficient side-kick Gautam, a rookie policeman.

  • Taking the budgetary constraints into account, we must appreciate how director Naren has staged certain scenes with aplomb. In a typical Tamil crime film, characters and scenario would be means to just convey the crucial information. But here, Naren eases us into the atmosphere, organically bringing in the vital details.
  • D-16 does have too many of the pocket novel elements. For the sake of extending the mystery, characters keep on forgetting things or holds on to information. Naren pins the blame on certain unpredictable human traits, which is convincing in few occasions.
  • Naren’s script keeps us guessing throughout and forced to playback the events in chronological order. While some of the twists look so preposterous, we are thoroughly engrossed when consuming it on the whole. The glaring ‘logical problems’ perplexed me only after leaving the theater.
  • Some of the recent Tamil pulp fictions possess certain moral values. D-16 has those elements too. But more than the overt moralism, I liked the existential undercurrents accompanying it. The central theme of emotional frailty is conveyed with a grace.
  • The low-key performance of Rahman is a stark contrast to the amateur performances of the supporting cast. But these are the kind of flaws we can overlook as it doesn’t heavily impact our cinematic enjoyment.
  • Right from the imaginative title card to the interesting final voice-over starting with ‘Karma is a boomerang…’, Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru aka D-16 signals the arrival of a smart film-maker for Tamil cinema. A little dose of suspension of disbelief is necessary to fully enjoy this well-crafted whodunit/thriller.