Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney
Director of Photography: Seamus McGarvey
Music by Abel Korzeniowski
Edited by Joan Sobel
Written and directed by Tom Ford
Rating: 9 out of 10
La La Land (2016)
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt
Director of Photography: Linus Sandgren
Music by Justin Hurwitz
Edited by Tom Cross
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Rating: 8 out of 10
Nocturnal Animals is an astounding movie, unlike almost any movie you’ve seen before. It reminded me of Brian de Palma’s Femme Fatale for some reason, maybe because it is similarly well-made and hard to grasp at the same time. It helped that I knew almost nothing going in (a rare occasion for me), so from the very first shots the movie kept me guessing all the way to the ambiguous ending. The cinematography and editing are some of the most amazing achievements I’ve seen in a long time. Amy Adams is as good as always, Jake Gyllenhaal is another favorite and Michael Shannon convinced me of his talents more than in any previous movie.
La La Land couldn’t be more different in tone and style, being an enchanting modern musical that embraces the past but also lives its contemporary sensibilities, especially in the way it ends. Gosling is great in everything he does and even if I had liked Emma Stone before, she really blew me away with this role. Director Damien Chazelle’s inventiveness seems to have no limits, which sometimes almost becomes a bit too much.
Nocturnal Animals is really good and offers enough to discover on subsequent rewatches. La La Land is a very entertaining and affecting movie, but it has some flaws that keep it from being as good as it could be. But why would I want to review these two movies together if they are so dissimilar?
They both follow one particular theme that connects them surprisingly well: the difference between dream/romance and reality. Both Susan and Edward in Nocturnal Animals and Mia and Sebastian in La La Land struggle over their different approaches to life, between following your dreams or trying to make ‘a living’.
In Nocturnal Animals this conflict leads to an almost existential crisis. Susan (Amy Adams) and Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) are deeply in love but Susan’s mother (Laura Linney) warns her that Edward is not right for her because he is a ‘dreamer’. Being a writer doesn’t count as a real job and while Susan rejects the idea that this could mess up their relationship, it eventually does. She criticizes his writing, which he takes personally and eventually she blames for exactly the same things her mother warned her about. Edward is scolded and rejected because he doesn’t fulfill society’s expectations. Writing and being romantic is seen as childish and not ‘serious’, or, as characters repeatedly claim, a sign of ‘weakness’.
The movie switches between the ‘real’ world and the fictional world of his first novel, which he sends to Susan. The movie connects both worlds in various ways, mostly through incredible match cuts. They show us that both worlds belong together and are almost inseparable. In fact, Susan gets almost lost in the fictional world and sees similarities to her own life, haunted by the pain she has caused for Edward. The life she has chosen, the ‘meaningful’ life, is boring, disappointing and empty. Her house, her art, her new husband (Armie Hammer) don’t generate any feelings. One of her friends tries to reassure that no one likes what they’re doing in this world (or, metaphorically, this culture). Having dreams and ideals only works when you’re young.
In the fictional world, Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal again), suffers from losing his wife and daughter, presumably because he is too scared or passive to defend them. This claim is hard to prove because there is no way of knowing if any defense would have stopped Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) from doing what he does to them. He, on the other hand, is portrayed as strong, never giving in, always doing what he wants but thereby becoming one of the most evil characters depicted on screen in a while.
Both worlds are confusing and ambiguous. Laws don’t seem to help anyone, as especially Detective Andres (Michael Shannon), confesses at some point. What about revenge? Will Tony find salvation in getting revenge for his family? The movie suggests that he doesn’t, even if there seems to be no other way and even if his lust for revenge is understandable.
There is a moment in the ‘real’ world, where Susan applies make up for a date and then decides against it, wiping most of it off again. It is the closest she comes in the story to reject the life on the surface and to look at deeper levels that are hidden there. She doesn’t go all the way because she clearly is not ready for that but it shows that reading the novel has affected her beyond simple shock. She really starts questioning her life. Again, the ending is ambiguous whether she is rewarded for that, but both characters end up with revelations that will make it impossible to go on with their lives as before.
Since La La Land deals with movie musicals, especially Hollywood musicals of the 50s, it embraces a certain kind of superficiality, a dream world that lets you escape reality. The basic idea of people “breaking into song” symbolizes a breakout from the real world to express your feelings in a way that seems impossible otherwise. The movie walks a fine line here between big, show-stopping numbers (like Another Day in the Sun or Epilogue) and more somber, almost authentic songs (like Audition (The Fools Who Dream) and City of Stars). It pays homage to those big musicals but it dares to look under their surface, at least partially.
It creates an interesting dynamic between Sebastian, who is a dreamer and nostalgia lover who longs for the ‘good ol’ times’ where jazz was still relevant, and Mia, who is willing to have a dull day job to reach her dream of becoming an actress. While he convinces her that she should be more of a dreamer, she also convinces him to become more pragmatic. She goes out and writes and performs her own play (which supposedly fails, although the movie somewhat avoids a real judgment on that), while he joins a jazz fusion band, which gives him money but makes him detached and calculated. While this idea of them going into opposite directions is interesting, the execution doesn’t really work out. We don’t know why Mia’s play fails and if she reacts to the small crowd on opening night or to the deterioration of her relationship to Sebastian. And Sebastian’s misadventures of being ‘pop’ are over the top at times, to the point where we don’t understand why he goes so far and is willing to sell any pride for something he (again, supposedly) doesn’t like.
The bigger problem is the ending, though. I loved the moment of Mia’s audition and her song because it showed a nice solution for her to actually become an actress but in something more independent and interesting, unlike the ephemeral movie star she witnesses in the beginning. But after the time jump she becomes exactly that, making her idea of dreaming fools sound very hollow. Should we root for her or pity her? And why is she the one who needs to have the ‘perfect life’ of job and family, while Sebastian in the end is still the lonely dreamer, who got what he wanted, except for the actual romance. Is romance just romance and unattainable? Do you need to stay ‘grounded’ to be a romantic? Those are interesting questions the movie barely asks and definitely doesn’t answer.
The epilogue is a great idea but it seems odd because it provides us with a Hollywood happy ending, which is clever but doesn’t really work since in the real life they have achieved a different kind of Hollywood happy ending, so where is the line here? Mia’s face in the end is brilliant but I’m not sure the movie knows what it is supposed to mean.
In the end, I think that Nocturnal Animals is more true to our world and the film that grasps our current fucked up zeitgeist. La La Land tries to be more than escapism but is too uneven to achieve more. They are both good movies but when I think of the way our reality feels more and more like a nightmare thanks to all the political developments, I prefer Nocturnal Animals vision of reality vs. dream where both are confusing and muddled. There is still some optimism in there as it’s hard not to feel for Edward’s idealism, even if it gets crushed again and again by the cynical reality of superficiality.