I think to be really, really good, you have to come from some place inside that I’m just not sure I have.
In the second film by fashion designer turned much too rare film director, we get a look into the unraveling psyches of its characters in a really strange and unique way. It begins simply enough: Amy Adams, an art gallery owner, receives a package from her ex-husband; during their marriage, she doubted that he’d ever finish the novel he was writing, so, now that he has, he wants her to be the first to read it. As she opens the novel, she slices her finger on the opening page; it’s on the nose, but a fitting omen. In the novel, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a husband and father on vacation with his family when an encounter beside a dark Texas highway sends him and his family off on a horrific new journey. As Adams’ reads this dark tale, she finds herself being haunted by memories of her relationship with her ex-husband, also played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the flashbacks. Meanwhile, in the present, she finds herself to starting to come apart at the seams, troubled by the novel, her memories and an impending visit by her ex-husband. The film jumps back and forth between these three streams: the present life of Adams’ character, the ongoing plot of the novel & the doomed story of her past marriage. The film carries a lot of weight in terms of the way these stories link up, but it’s never really explicit. The main question of the film is obviously what the novel is supposed to mean and why he sent it to her. The film never really makes those connections clear and the film remains both deep and ambiguous. It would be easy, for example, to link Adams to the wife of the main character of the novel, but in a way, she also links to the frightening thugs beside the highway. Ford’s vision is beautiful, all stark, sun-baked landscapes in the novel, painfully bright and desolate & bare, minimal post-modern interiors in the present, grim, foreboding, dark, shadowy and just as desolate as the Texas plains. Ford is at the top of his game here; he wrote the ambiguous, super-smart screenplay as well as providing the visually stunning direction. But the performances also really impress. Adams is wonderful, minimal & powerful as the haunted main character; it’s a far better performance than her work in Arrival which is constantly being touted as astounding. Gyllenhaal gives a really emotionally raw performance in the novel sections. Michael Shannon is brilliant in a minimal, menacing performance as a mysterious, morally compromised lawman in the novel. The real revelation here is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, an actor I’ve found pretty bad in the past, adequate at best. As the villain of the novel, the ring-leader of a small band of violent thugs, he’s unbelievably terrifying. The section on the highway seems to go on forever, winding the tension tighter and tighter and it ends with a brutal sucker-punch. Taylor-Johnson is way out there on the edge and it’s nothing short of an award-worthy performance. A young actor named Karl Glusman is also very good as one of the henchmen. A huge cadre of well-known actors show up for tiny bits. Michael Sheen and Jena Malone have a scene each, neither one particularly given much to do. Laura Linney shows up as Adams’ mother in a flashback scene and she’s as good as she’s been in years in just a few minutes. Armie Hammer is suitably callow (and breathtakingly good-looking) in a small role. Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber are both very good as the wife & daughter respectively in the novel. It’s just a deeply ambiguous, really unsettling film; it has atmosphere to burn, nailing both the chilly, noir atmosphere of the present reality and the sun-baked, Coen-esque Texas atmosphere of the novel. It’s a grim movie, one that is really upsetting in all the best ways. It’s a brilliant, disturbing film. Ford’s first film was in 2009; here’s hoping he doesn’t wait another seven years to give us his third. 4 stars.
tl;dr – unsettling neo-noir thriller juggles multiple storylines and features great performances from all concerned; director Ford’s dark vision creates another masterpiece. 4 stars.