NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016) review
written by: Tom Ford (screenplay) and Austin Wright (story)
produced by: Tom Ford and Robert Salerno
directed by: Tom Ford
rated: R (for violence, menace, graphic nudity, and language)
runtime: 116 min.
U.S. release date: November 18, 2016 (limited)
Right from the start, “Nocturnal Animals” is a film I couldn’t look away from (even though I wanted to); one that sent me reeling immediately after viewing. I may not be sure what to make of it, but I found myself nevertheless transfixed and fascinated by it. Tom Ford’s impressive second film, after his stellar “A Single Man” from 2009, is filled with regret, sadness, catharsis and cynicism. It is the furthest thing from a sophomore slump, yet it’s also quite confounding.
Initially, I found myself really mixed on it, but after diving into some great post-viewing conversation with fellow critic Ian Simmons, I now find myself respecting the film more and more. Sure, it may resemble films from the past and emulate well-known styles from other directors and even share similarities to other films that were released this year, but there is no argument it is an unforgettable viewing experience. I probably just need to start writing about it without over-thinking it, less I start to lose my newfound appreciation for it.
The film deals with the past, present and future of its main character in absorbing ways and once you accept the tone and feel of Ford’s approach, you can then find yourself slowing down and processing the story – kind of like the way you would if you were driving past a terrible roadside accident.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a disaffected gallery owner in Los Angeles, who has grown distant from her philandering second husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), both of whom have dissolved into simply playing the part of spouse. She receives a package one day from her estranged ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), with an invitation to meet for dinner. There’s a manuscript of a novel written by Edward in the package, entitled Nocturnal Animals (a term Edward used to call Susan) and dedicated to insomniac Susan. She begins reading the story, while Hutton is on a business trip in New York City and loses herself in a story about a meek family man named Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), who’s on a road trip in West Texas with his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher, an appropriate doppelgänger for Adams) and teen daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), all three of whom get run off the desolate road and attacked by three violent rednecks led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). When Tony’s wife and daughter are kidnapped after their encounter, he receives help from local Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), but the year-long investigation consumes the guilt-ridden Tony, who becomes obsessed with revenge. While Susan is absorbed by the story, she reflects on her years with Edward and how their marriage dissolved and what she did to end it.
From its surprising and provocative opening sequence, “Nocturnal Animals” basically tells you to expect anything. Right away, it may feel like Ford (who acknowledged Douglas Sirk in “A Single Man”) is paying homage to David Lynch with its dark winding roads and there are hints of influences from Hitchcock and DePalma, as well as Friedkin and Verhoeven, later on. Ford is accompanied by talented partners – there’s striking work here from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (who’s successfully proven he can navigate from “Atonement” to “Avengers: Age of Ultron“) who deftly handles the different looks of the present, the past and the story Edward wrote. Ford reunites with collaborators from “A Single Man”, such as composer Abel Korzeniowski, who at times pays homage to Bernard Herrmann and Frank Skinner’s sweeping work from the 50s, and is joined by editor Joan Sobel again, who provides an element to the film which largely conveys how our mind recalls memories or shifts attention as well as how we read a story.
Ford’s screenplay here is adapted from Tony and Susan, a 1993 novel by Anthony Wright, which is described as a modern noir thriller. Like this film, there is a story within Wright’s story and the author uses two contrasting styles – Susan’s story is told in fluid passages of time, while Tony’s story is sharply rendered prose that unfolds with unexpected turns – both of which eventually meld into one suspenseful narrative. That’s what Ford, the former fashion designer, is going for here and through his impeccable visuals, three-tiered narrative approach and great performances from most of his cast, he succeeds. Outside of those elements though, the film as a whole, has little substance to offer.
At no point though does “Nocturnal Animals” ever feel predictable, which helps tremendously in a film that continuously left me confounded. It helps that the cast delivers such committed and intense work. Adams’ Susan is clearly the main protagonist here and there were times when I was wondering if I was getting any real representation of who any of the other characters are since all three storylines are told from her vantage point, from her memories.
From the opening, Ford successfully establishes who Susan and Hutton are and the world they live in. She calls herself a realist – an excuse she has convinced herself is truth in order to justify why she abandoned pursuing a career as an artist. She wants us to believe that going from creator to curator is a purposeful decision on her part, albeit a unfulfilling one, but the truth is she’s crippled by insecurity and misery, which is masked by the expensive clothes and makeup she wears and the glass house she resides in the Los Angeles hills. Her husband is nothing more than a trophy, her predictable (or so she thinks) Ken doll who has become easy to live alongside and/or control.
Susan is a woman who has lost herself in art gallery work for the past twenty years, in a subconscious decision to avoid her true self. When she loses herself in Edward’s book, she isn’t quite prepared to face herself. Edward has written a story that touched on the pain of helplessness and of fear that leads to inaction, which then leads to guilt, regret and revenge. This may be what Jack’s character experiences in the story Susan is reading, but she is also feeling many of these emotions as well, as the book finds her reflecting on the her failed marriage to Edward and her current stagnant life.
Edward is clearly writing what he knows, projecting his raw emotions into a harrowing page turner of loss and revenge. It’s like a combination of the ultimate break-up letter and an emotional soul dump that becomes both engrossing and overwhelming for Susan. Maybe it’s only now that she’s able to understand what she did to Edward emotionally – a man she couldn’t support due to her own weaknesses and a man who often reminded Susan how similar she is to her selfish upper-class mother (Laura Linney, in a scene-stealing cameo), something she’s always resented.
Watching the story Susan is reading come to life for the viewer is a unique experience. We are seeing what she is reading and how she is imagining what she is reading. Usually, when we find a movie being filmed in a movie or a story is being told inside a movie, there is a bit of a disconnect because the story being is obviously acted out or it just doesn’t feel real. There’s a little bit of that here, but the story of the Hastings family feels no less real, primarily due to Susan’s visceral reaction to it. Edward and Susan may not have physically met in the past nineteen years since their break-up, but it’s clear they haven’t stop thinking about each other and that there’s still scar tissue.
It’s clear Susan is a damaged and hollow individual (maybe she always was), yet since we never meet Edward in the present we therefore only know him through his writing and her memories. There’s a reason Susan envisions Jack as Edward (Gyllenhaal has his hands full portraying a wide array of emotions for both characters) and we can assume her reasons, but I like that it’s never explained.
Which brings me back to the great performances. Between this role and her character in “Arrival”, I think it’s safe to say Adams could be competing against herself come Oscar time.
But the two performances that standout, for better or worse, come from Michael Shannon and Arron Taylor-Johnson, respectively. Shannon is a reliable asset in any movie and here it feels like he walked off the set of an early Coen Brothers movie into Ford’s film. As Bobby Andes, he grunts and grimaces with his signature piercing eyes and out of all the characters in “Nocturnal Animals”, Shannon’s is the most unpredictable. It is Shannon after all. At times, his Bobby feels like a cartoon character come to life (think Elmer Fudd or Wile E. Coyote) and in other moments his character is filled with pathos, all while injected a much-needed deadpan humor to the film. Then there’s Taylor-Johnson – the only actor who feels like he’s acting and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A little of his white trash scumbag character goes a long way. Sure, Taylor-Johnson is able to ditch his British accent for a Texas drawl, but there are zero nuances to the unfiltered Ray, which may be appealing to some viewers – but, I grew tired of it. Still, I admired that Edward created these two, since, to our knowledge that are not avatars of any real-life characters that he and Susan know of, but then again what we are seeing is coming from both of their imagination – so, who knows?
Now here I am with more appreciation for a film I didn’t really like all that much immediately after viewing. Sometimes, through discussion and writing, one comes to a greater appreciation of the subject. It happens. Oh, I’m still confounded by this film, but I’m also impressed too.
I recently read where one critic described “Nocturnal Animals” as a mashup of “Neon Demon” and “Hell or High Water” (both from earlier this year) and while that’s an apt comparison, there’s so much more going on here than that. It’s a good way to describe it to a moviegoer, I suppose, but “Nocturnal Animals” isn’t for everybody. It’s for a film enthusiast with a tolerance for the unexpected and the patience for a triptych of unusual stories.