Caught up with the other Amy Adams movie released recently, and a very different beast to Arrival where she also starred. Directed by Tom Ford, it’s exquisitely photographed, strongly acted, and does well to create meshing narratives with their own moods and textures, but in the end it all felt rather hollow and trying-too-hard. There’s much to admire about it, but my reaction in the end pretty much boiled down to, so what.
The film opens with a sequence that’s clearly meant to provoke an uncomfortable reaction, featuring morbidly obese women, naked except for cowboy hats, boots and gloves, dancing and gyrating against the blood-red background in slow motion. These, it becomes clear later, are part of a new art installation in the gallery owned by Susan (Amy Adams), a high-roller in the Los Angeles art world and a profoundly unhappy woman. Her world is immaculate, extravagant, overstyled, glossy and oh-so spiritually empty, and her second husband (Armie Hammer, probably doomed to play born-into-privilege types forever and ever) is acting cold and distant. The next day after the opening, Susan receives a yet-to-be-published novel from her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she hasn’t spoken to in years and who dedicated the novel to her. While opening the package, she receives a nasty papercut that draws blood. Foreshadowing much?
From then on, the movie splits into three stories: Edward’s novel that Susan keeps on reading with increasing discomfort, Susan’s current miserable life, and flashbacks to her former life with Edward. The story-within-the-story is about a man called Tony (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who drives with his wife and daughter through West Texas at night, and has a run-in with a bunch of young sadistic thugs. Suffice to say, things go from bad to worse to sheer horror, and Susan’s response to this fictional story becomes more and more emotionally fraught and personal, as it becomes obvious that she effectively cast her ex-husband as the protagonist of his brutal novel. There are other visual touches linking the two stories: Susan’s red couch from her L.A. home becomes a sinister prop in Edward’s story; Tony’s wife and teenage daughter in the novel bear an eerie resemblance to Susan and her real daughter.
I’ve been trying to figure out my ultimately blah response to it all, and I think it’s down to the fact that the movie did nothing to make me care about Susan and Edward’s relationship. The flashbacks reveal them as a couple of young and idealistic lovers whose relationship falls victim to the demands of the real world and different aspirations. Problem is, the movie doles out this information in the most obvious way possible, with the subtlety of a brick to the face, though I did enjoy the brief cameo by Laura Linney, almost unrecognisable as Susan’s pearl-wearing, conservative Republican mother. Blue Valentine from a few years ago, with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as the doomed couple, covered a similar ground in a much more nuanced fashion. Also, it turns out that Susan did something awful to Edward near the end of their marriage, but this doesn’t have an impact it should have had. Without a real emotional centre, the story basically comes down to, he sends her a screw-you novel, she is disturbed. The end. The only real standout for me, other than the stylish visuals, Susan’s wardrobe and great sense of atmosphere, was Michael Shannon’s mesmerising turn as a laconic, enigmatic Texas lawman who at times is even more frightening than the criminals he’s chasing.