Nocturnal Animals
Produced by Fade to Black Productions 
Directed and written by Tom Ford, 
based on Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan 
Distributed by Focus Features 

Doctor Strange
Produced by Marvel and Disney Studios 
Directed and written by Scott Derrickson 
Distributed by Walt Disney Studios 

Erstwhile fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford seems to have meant his second film, Nocturnal Animals, to be, as Winston Churchill said of Russia, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”  If I’m right about Ford’s intention to mystify, then I have to say he hasn’t fully succeeded.  His riddle is far too decipherable, and his film is, as the psychiatrists say, overdetermined.  Nearly every shot is accompanied by a signpost announcing his purpose, which aligns with Oscar Wilde’s in “The Decay of Lying.”  “Life imitates Art,” Wilde informs his readers, “far more than Art imitates Life.”  Wilde’s unspoken corollary is that we can’t see reality clearly until we perceive it through the agency of art.

Ford indelicately hammers home this aperçu by equipping his film with two distinct narratives that proceed in counterpoint.  The first concerns Susan Morrow (the currently ubiquitous Amy Adams), who owns a high-end art gallery in Los Angeles; the second is a novel in the cynical, hard-boiled school of James M. Cain.  Entitled Nocturnal Animals, it is written by Susan’s ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal).  The first narrative is the film’s “reality”; the second, the “fictional” story that Susan reads within that “reality.”  Ford interweaves their plots so that they comment on each other both dramatically and thematically.  Susan’s story has been shot in cold, blue tones that give it a remote, unwelcoming aura; the novel’s narrative, which we watch as Susan reads it, is harshly lit in a glaring yellow cast, suitable both to its West Texas setting and to its disquieting purpose.

We first enter Susan’s world, where we find she’s been rendered nocturnal by her persistent insomnia and her chosen circumstances.  She lives in a childless marriage with a suave financier who is cheating on her.  In consequence, she’s both bitter and bored.  The gallery she’s developed now leaves her cold.  She declares its exhibits to be junk.  To her exasperation, one of her assistants concurs with her statement.  Junk, this fashionable creature announces, can serve as profitable material for postmodern art.

As we follow Susan through her gallery, we come upon a collection of au courant paintings and sculptures, almost all of them suffused with sneering irony.  On a staircase to the second floor the camera pauses, the better to have us consider an installation by Damien Hirst entitled San Sebastian, Exquisite Pain.  (Ford called upon his art-world acquaintances to loan him their works for the film.)  In a glass case filled with formaldehyde stands a bullock pierced by arrows on all sides.  Very arch, indeed.  It encapsulates perfectly what Susan’s homosexual friend Carlos says to her in the next scene.  Seeing that she’s profoundly sad, he tries to console her.  “Our world is a lot less painful than the real world,” he sweetly observes.  He’s correct, if one can accept the artificial existence enjoyed by people in Susan’s pampered world, antiseptically sealed from life and death.  Life, however, has been forcing its way through the walls of Susan’s sterile existence.  As she stands in front of a canvas on which the word revenge has been painted in huge, dripping black letters, another associate shows Susan her iPhone.  It’s receiving video from the nanny cam her aide has installed in her nursery.  Distrustful of the woman caring for her baby, she surveils her whenever she’s away from home.  As Susan looks at the live coverage, she suddenly sees—or imagines—a snarling man shoving his face into the frame.  Startled, she drops the phone, shattering it.  She quickly offers to replace it, but her assistant replies she needn’t worry.  Her contract is almost up, and she’ll soon be supplied with a new phone.  In the following scene, Susan’s staff informs her a new employee has failed to meet expectations.  Why waste time counseling her, they reason, when she can be fired and replaced with considerably less fuss?

Ford has said his film indicts the casual manner with which we currently accept the “necessity” of human disposability.  With convenience as our watchword, we’re not troubled by firings, divorce, infidelity, and abortion.  After all, nannies, wives, spouses, unborn babies—all can be aborted (and replaced, if so desired).  This allows us to move on from inconveniences without undue distress.

Carlos’s facile analysis of the art world seems to be confirmed again and again.  Its denizens successfully defend themselves from life’s unpleasant contingencies by transforming them into ironic exhibits displayed and distanced behind glass and screens.

Then reality abruptly breaks into Susan’s life courtesy, paradoxically enough, of the fiction Edward has sent her.  The “nocturnal animals” in Edward’s story are five sadistic louts who force their way into the lives of a couple and their teenaged daughter.  As Susan reads the novel, she becomes at once engrossed and increasingly disturbed by its scenes, which simultaneously appear on the screen.

The novel exhibits unmistakable relevance to Susan’s life.  The protagonists, Tony and Laura, are played by Gyllenhaal and Isla Fisher, an actress who’s been made up to resemble Adams.  Both women are redheads possessing full figures and have redheaded daughters.  And all the characters experience brutal terror: Susan, at an aesthetic remove; Laura and her daughter, at close quarters.

I found this film remarkable for several reasons: its visual wit, exceptional acting, ingenious plot contrivances, and its redheaded women.  I haven’t seen so much red hair since Maureen O’Hara commanded the Technicolor screen.  Then there’s another feature that’s, strictly speaking, beyond aesthetic criteria.  Ford is openly gay, as the expression goes.  He has been with his partner for 37 years, and they’re rearing a son.  Given this, I was surprised that one of the film’s plot points turns on an abortion that’s presented as both needless and sinful.  OK, OK—I’m narrow-minded.  Why wouldn’t a homosexual frown on abortion?  Besides, this fits in with Ford’s objection to disposability in the cause of convenience.  I don’t want to detract from the film’s suspense, so I’ll say no more.

There’s another matter that does veer into aesthetics, concerning how women are posed.  Prominent in Susan’s gallery are paintings that parody Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque (1814), in which a reclining woman presents her naked derrière to the viewer.  One in particular is John Currin’s Nude in a Convex Mirror, in which said mirror has grotesquely enlarged the subject’s derrière so that it dominates the canvas.  Along with the paintings, three of the actresses are shown from the same perspective.  I suspect Ford’s emphasis on this pose has more than a little to do with his homosexuality.  Furthermore, he’s on record saying that he believes heterosexual men should allow themselves to be penetrated now and then.  Doing so, he reasons, would help them understand women better than they do.  Would it?  I can’t say.  It’s just not a proposition I can get behind.  I do find it telling that the film presents homosexuality unflatteringly via its sterile proponents.  Carlos’s wife, for instance, brags about not having to worry about her hubby romancing other women.

I should mention also that Ford has had the good sense to include in his cast Michael Shannon, an actor currently almost as ubiquitous as Amy Adams.  He gives an exceptionally vivid portrayal of the sheriff who helps Gyllenhaal’s Tony in the wake of his and his family’s ordeal.  It’s the rare actor who can make his character at once hard-bitten and vulnerable.

Turning from art, let’s consider the latest Marvel movie.  (At least I think it’s the latest; it’s difficult to keep up with this franchise’s frantic pace.)

Doctor Strange is strange not only by reason of its protagonist’s name but because it doesn’t rely exclusively on punch-ups and explosions to wow its audience.  Instead, director Scott Derrickson treats us to buildings and streets that upend and fold over at the wave of a mighty sorcerer’s hand.  The effect is stunning to look at initially, but somewhat tiresome after the tenth time.

The movie’s plot depends on invoking what I would have thought a politically incorrect premise: that all true sorcery comes from the inscrutable Orient.  Whatever its bias, this notion nevertheless makes sense.  Isn’t the Orient where the Shadow learned how to cloud men’s minds so that they’d only see and hear what he wanted them to?  Or are we meant to believe that all those buildings and streets folding over aren’t illusory, but real results produced by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, formidably bald) when gesturing hieratically?  The story’s not too clear about this, and I haven’t any issues of the Doctor Strange comic book to guide me.

But to begin at the beginning, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a lesser sorcerer, and his minions show up in a library in Kathmandu, Nepal.  He intends to take out a book on sorcery currently banned from general circulation.  He meets resistance from Wong, a librarian more fearsome than the one who unintentionally cast a lifelong spell of anticommunism on me when I was 11.  (She tried but failed to deny me access to a copy of Herbert Philbrick’s I Led Three Lives.)  Wong almost beats back the intruders, but Kaecilius manages to rip the pages he needs from the marvelous tome and escapes to London through a space-time portal.

Cut to a Manhattan hospital where Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) successfully removes a bullet from a man’s brain.  Not surprising: He’s the world’s greatest neurosurgeon, as he himself incessantly proclaims.  Later, when driving to a speaking engagement, he swerves off the road, smashing his sports car and, incidentally, himself.  Surgery saves his life but can’t repair his mangled hands.

In his quest to regain the use of his hands, Strange travels to Kathmandu—where else?  There the Ancient One teaches him sorcery, kung fu, and astral projection.  Into the bargain, she impresses on him a challenging notion: “It’s not all about you.”

The movie’s key special effect—the lead actor—saves it from its silliness.  As Alec Guinness did for Star Wars, Cumberbatch brings the kind of wit to his role that makes palatable all its magic cloaks, time-looping, and mammoth villains.  While staying in character, he lets you know how much he’s enjoying the tomfoolery.  There’s also Derrickson’s decision to make the story turn on self-sacrifice, to which the arrogant Strange finally commits himself.