Movie Review – Nocturnal Animals

Nocturnal Animals (2016, dir. Tom Ford)

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Nocturnal Animals is so much and so elusive in letting us know what it is. At a basic level, it is three narratives: The Present, The Past, and The Fiction. All of these narratives are filtered through a single viewpoint, and they tell us much about the effects of love and hate. The story of Nocturnal Animals begins in the Present with Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a California art gallery owner whose life is a comfortable one, luxurious and successful. She is in her second marriage and with a young adult daughter. What she thought would make her happy has failed to do so. Her daughter is living away and distant while her husband is habitually cheating on her. Into this mix arrives a manuscript from her estranged first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). The novel is titled Nocturnal Animals, a name he used to call Susan.

The story of Nocturnal Animals, the book, is that of Tony Hastings (also Jake Gyllenhaal), a mild-mannered husband and father taking his wife and daughter to a retreat in West Texas. They run afoul of some nefarious locals who manipulate and bait the family into being split apart. This journey takes Tony down a dark path where is aided by aging detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).

Then the third level of the narrative is Susan’s memories of her years married to Edward and their philosophical clash over their mutual pursuit of art. This third level feels like the key to unlocking a further understanding of the Present and the Fiction. There are obvious nods to these other levels of narrative and some more subtle. As a whole, the film reminded me strongly of David Lynch’s millennial work, dark noir elements mixed with stories that force the audience to ask questions about reality and identity.

Because Ford has come from the world of fashion the most striking aspects of the film are its visuals. This is a gorgeous looking picture, and he manages to establish visual continuity that helps the audience easily distinguish between the three layers of the story. As I’ve thought about the film since viewing it, I find the visuals are probably the strongest part and that the story, while interesting and kept me hooked, feels a bit thin.

While the film did remind me of David Lynch and the neo-noir genre, it certainly didn’t seem to have the depth of those works. When you step back and examine the full sweep of Nocturnal Animals the whole picture is clear: This is a revenge story. The final scene confirms that and there isn’t much to question when the film ends. For an attentive viewer, it is evident what Edward is doing to his ex-wife in the novel. One particular scene, taking place near the middle of the movie where we are shown a piece of art in Susan’s gallery came across as a hitting the nail on the head big time.

The performances are spectacular. Adams and Gyllenhaal are given multiple roles to play. Adams plays her jaded present self and her optimistic younger self very believably. Gyllenhaal plays the thoughtful and romantic Edward in excellent contrast to the shattered Tony. Michael Shannon, who never seems to give a bad performance (even Premium Rush is fun), is an absolute force of nature as Detective Andes. The only dud, in my opinion, is Armie Hammer who always seems to play the same sort of pretty face with little depth.

Nocturnal Animals is an incredibly interesting and different film than we typically see around this time of year. While it is likely in contention for Oscars, it doesn’t feel like an Oscar bait film. The themes are much darker and cynical than your typical awards season fare. If you are looking for something like Lynch, but with a lighter touch this will certainly do the trick.

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