Spoilers are in this review. Just warning you.
What does one make of a movie that taunts you one moment, then seduces you the next, daring you to pick up its cues to big themes and ideas yet never giving you the traditional satisfaction of emotional catharsis or an explicit monologue? The opening credits, which features fat women dancing in burlesque clothing and mini U.S. flags, let you know from the outset what kind of movie this ultimately is: a skin deep affair that seems to have a lot going on its thin, toxic surface. But like the pretentious art gallery its main character Susan (played by Amy Adams) runs, one can one only extrapolate so much from said surface before walking away and maybe thinking about it some more afterwards. For a movie that uses close-ups most of the time, it never quite pierces the soul, instead using the environments of Susan, along with flashbacks and a fictional story both featuring Tony (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) to inform us of who these characters truly are. How these characters dress, how they organize their spaces, and even how their eyes shift: these are how the movie informs us of who these people are. That is also all you will be getting, provided you don’t overthink things, even though the movie dares you to. Yep, it’s one of those.
Not to say that the movie is horrible. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, working with Shane Valentino, Christopher Brown, Meg Everist and Arianne Phillips (not to mention the Makeup department) work with writer/director Tom Ford to make the repellent moments shock and the icy, disjointed world of upper-class Los Angeles stick in one’s mind. Keying in on Susan’s quiet despair, regret and fears in the midst of her drama involving her failing art gallery and her cold marriage, the production does a fine job of conveying the mindset of its main character without resorting to “The Martix”/”Dark City”-style world-warping. And with the story’s structure, said mindset leaks into the parallel fictional story Tony submits to her one day in the midst of Susan’s drama. How? Well, one can see her interpreting Tony’s conventional story of loss and revenge (featuring sexual assault and gruesome violence) as something of an affront, with certain passages with characters played by Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who are EXCELLENT in this, by the way) portrayed with more vibrant color hues than the real world.
Such theming, however, doesn’t go much further than that, and one could say that is the whole point. With the movie being told entirely from Susan’s point of view, it’s a study of narcissism and self-obsession that never quite transcends or probes deep. Even as Susan’s reading of Tony’s story begins to unravel her and lead her to confronting a painful past, the movie doesn’t offer any comforting illusion that said probing is anything more than an act of self-preservation disguised as moral redemption (depending on where one’s morals lie, anyway, and I’ll get to that in a bit). Susan’s conflict is about her embracing, “the real world” of art galleries and rich people like her parents banging on about meaning and value, versus the unrealistic but earnest yearnings of her ex-husband Tony. But even when bridging this gap, she never truly goes beyond herself. She struggles to be intimate with anyone, especially her second husband Hutton (played by Armie Hammer, making us forget for a moment about 2013’s, “The Lone Ranger”) or any of her family members, placing everything and everyone around her at arms length. By the time she gets an e-mail response from Tony asking her to meet with him somewhere, it becomes clear that for all of her yearning, whatever empathy she had was snuffed out long ago. She can only make material efforts to connect on her own terms, never quite understanding what others have to deal with.
Ok, so the movie centers on a plot about the Bad Thing Susan Did to Tony…and it’s abortion. Yes, Susan, as her relationship with Tony fails, decided to abort their child without Tony’s involvement. That’s the bad thing. How? Well, it’s simply taken for granted. Both by Susan, who describes herself as, “A catholic who doesn’t believe in abortions” to her then-lover Hutton, and by Tony, whose character in the parallel story (interpreted by Susan) is seen wearing a necklace with a cross on it. Tony’s story has awakened in Susan her past, her conflicts with her homophobic, materialist parents, and the few moments of goodness with Tony, along with key conflicts with him regarding her need to feel secure (in a few scenes, one notices that Susan is cynical yet more ambitious while the opposite is true of Tony, even though the story we end up with from Tony is ugly and brutal).
But all we see of Tony are these romanticized/skewed portrayals of him, through the fictional story and even in flashbacks where Tony argues with her. Maybe Tony is a manchild who is so caught up in his passion that he wasn’t able to do his part in the relationship. Or maybe Susan was just so cold, like her mother, that she could never make it work even if she tried. All we have is her interpretation of things. And while it all makes for a well-told story of regret, the way the story is told only gives one so much meat to chew on. It’s a movie that manages to be as self-involved as its protagonist, grasping for meaning within itself, borrowing pieces from the first act to the third act and vice-versa to give a convincing illusion that there is something going on. But there isn’t. There is only Susan. There was always Susan. Her needs, her wants. Tony is, ultimately, just a stepping stone, and the movie is just Susan grasping, then admitting, and then finally trying to change that…but only on her own terms, inviting him to dinner at an expensive restaurant without really consulting with him about whether he could afford to come or not. And Tony never comes.
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