We put off watching designer-turned-director Tom Ford’s sophomore endeavor Nocturnal Animals because we thought it was going to be more work than it was worth.
Wrong. It’s scary and complex and really stuck with us.
Amy Adams is the star. But somehow the image that lodged in our heads is a profile shot of Jake Gyllenhaal through a car window. As Gyllenhaal has aged, his cheekbones have gotten dangerously high. Here they’re set off by a luxuriant beard and an expression that’s much too wounded for a man that handsome.
Gyllenhaal was nominated for the BAFTA Best Actor (Affleck won), but didn’t make it to the list of Oscar nominees.
Despite starring in some big mainstream films he’s repeatedly to taken on roles that are alternative, risky, and/or purposely askew.
NOCTURNAL CREATURES (2016)
The story structure sounds complicated on paper, but works onscreen. Amy Adams is an haute-art gallery owner in LA, locked in a glass and chrome cage of her own making. Her high-flying dealmaker husband is in a slump and they’re feeling the pinch. Meanwhile, he’s cheating on her, a fact that her effete friends see as par for the course.
She gets a package. In it is a novel, written by her first husband, estranged for 20 years. It’s dedicated to her. Alone at night in her hilltop aerie, she starts reading.
As she reads, we dive into the world of the novel, and it’s a dark one. A bunch of lowlifes isolate a traveling family late at night on a desolate West Texas road, brutalize the husband and kidnap the wife and teenage daughter. Things get just about as ugly as you can imagine.
As things play out, we come back to the present, then flash back to the first marriage. Gyllenhaal plays both Adams’ first husband and the husband in the book. We see how she betrayed him, dooming herself to a life of emptiness, and leaving him him longing for revenge, whiich is the final theme of his novel.
And the whole movie has just been released for online purchase:
In this indie film which he also produced, Gyllenhaal’s performance is simultaneously ingenuous and creepy. Perfectly sociopathic. Gyllenhaal turns the earnest eagerness that drove his more mainstream performances into a mask on a soul without morals or compunction.
His character is a “nightcrawler” – a freelance videographer who trolls the freeways and police band radio waves looking for the freshest, bloodiest, most gruesome footage he can find, then sells it to local network news.
It’s a skeevy profession to start, and Gyllenhaal’s character takes it the capitalistic next step.
Although we didn’t realize it at the time, this was the first time we saw another rising star – British rapper/actor Riz Ahmed, who since has appeared in HBO miniseries The Night Of, Star Wars Rogue One, and popped up this weekend as Hannah’s new surfer dude love interest last
Sunday in Girls. Oh yeah, and also last Sunday being awkwardly mistaken for BAFTA winner Dev Patel in an “embarrassing Twitter blunder” by Burberry.
Jake and sister Maggie (featured in last week’s post) are the children of director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner – they’d been acting since they were young. Both of them were in their dad’s 1995 movie A Dangerous Woman and Jake played Billy Crystal’s kid in City Slickers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfL3lWNOOoQ
Gyllenhaal’s first lead role was Homer Hickam in October Sky. It’s the true story story of a coal miner’s son who is inspired by the 1958 launch of Sputnik, starts building his own rockets, and eventually ends up at NASA.
Janet Maslin didn’t love the movie but attributes Gyllenhaal with “beguiling eagerness”. Beleaguered Chris Cooper is his foil in a classic father/son story that manages to avoid the obvious traps to be both inspiring and genuinely moving.
Gyllenhaal was 17 and still in high school when he shot the movie – the same age as his character.
Gyllenhaal’s second feature lead was the title character in Richard Kelly’s cult hit Donny Darko. It was at this point that it first became obvious that he wasn’t always going to make the safe choice. Darko became a cult hit and the signature film for the early part of his career.
It’s hard to imagine anybody else embodying Donny the way Gyllenhaal did, fluidly oscillating from utter normalcy to complete insanity, sometimes within a single scene.
High school student Donny is visited by a demonic six foot rabbit named Frank, who predicts the world’s end. Donny is either schizophrenic, can penetrate extranormal dimensions – or probably both. We’re never quite sure if he’s crazy or not — but at the end of the film it seems like the rabbit was telling him the truth.
It’s a story of teen angst married to sci-fi and abnormal psychology. The solid supporting cast includes sister Maggie and Drew Barrymore (whose company bankrolled the production).
It had a lukewarm premiere at Sundance 2001, then was saved from straight to DVD oblivion by young Christopher Nolan who midwifed its release. It came out just after 9/11 and floundered in theaters but refused to die, eventually settling into cult status though a nearly endless round of late night and revival screenings.
After a fabulous run in the early 2000’s (Se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room) David Fincher took a few years off, then returned with this finely wrought mystery thriller.
In it, Gyllenhaal once again plays a character who sees things that nobody else does. He’s the unlikely and late-breaking hero of the piece, Robert Graysmith — a geeky outsider editorial cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle — who eventually wrote the book the movie is based on.
Gyllenhaal’s character has no professional reason to be obsessed with the titular serial killer. But he becomes obsessed anyway. He likes puzzles, and sees patterns in the Zodiac killer’s work where nobody else sees patterns. And once he starts seeing those patterns, he’s hooked. As the other main characters come and go over 20 years, so does the Zodiac himself; but Graysmith continues obsessively following the trail.
It’s a great cast – in addition to Gyllenhaal, there’s Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox. And it’s a bravura piece of filmmaking. With a remarkable clarity of vision and obsession with detail, Fincher makes a film that is more his own than anything that came before holds your attention through two and a half hours. It only did moderately well (in Fincher terms), but was a critical favorite and made most of that year’s Top Ten lists.
This was a particularly hard list to pare down – there’s the iconic Brokeback Mountain, the Denis Villenueve films Enemy and Prisoners, and the beefier but still uniquely Gyllenhaal roles of Jarhead and Southpaw.
But we’re going back to the beginning again for Gyllenhaal’s early pairing with a severely underappreciated Jennifer Anniston in a capitalist critique masquerading as a dark comedy.
Once again, the female character is trapped in a dead-end live — but at the opposite end of the economic scale. Jennifer Aniston plays a clerk in a southern big box store, married to amiable stoner house painter John C. Reilly. Enter young new cashier Holden Worther, a quiet kid who is obsessed with Catcher in the Rye. Slowly an irresistible attraction develops, until Aniston finally gives in and an affair begins.
Yes, it’s really hard to believe that even an older women would not desert John C. Reilly for a dewy Jake. But this is not a cookie-cutter movie – Miquel Arteta’s previous film was Chuck and Buck, and the satiric script is by Mike White, who also appears as the store’s nasty Jesus freak security guard. There are twists and turns, and even though the ending looks happy-ish, it leaves you with a sinking feeling.
In a strange way, you can see the seeds of Jack Twist in Gyllenhaal’s performance here, even though it’s amazing to think that Brokeback was just three years away.
And watching this movie makes you feel a little sorry for Jennifer Aniston – this was a really audacious choice for her. If she hadn’t had another couple of years of Friends ahead, her career might have taken and entirely different turn.
Weirdly, this movie isn’t currently available online (except for maybe unofficial version on YouTube).