Nocturnal Animals (2016)

I had two initial reactions to the opening of Nocturnal Animals.  The first was one of familiarity as glitter began to cascade on the screen and it reminded me of The Neon Demon, which made me expect something glamorous to be appearing.  The film quickly subverted that expectation, though, as fat, middle-aged women danced completely naked in slow motion at what turns out to be a posh art exhibit in Los Angeles.  This jarring and, frankly, uncomfortable opening, was not quite a harbinger of things to come, but it did set the tone for what would follow, a sometimes compelling story with some flourishes that are intended to provoke but do not necessarily offer much in the way of artistic substance.

This story from fashion-designer-turned-writer/director Tom Ford is broken into three interwoven tales.  Susan (Amy Adams) is an art gallery owner in Los Angeles.  On her second, failing marriage to a businessman named Hutton (Armie Hammer) and dissatisfied with her work, she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who asks her to read this novel he has written that is a sharp departure from what he has ever written in the past.  The manuscript, titled Nocturnal Animals, is dedicated to her and it is about a family in west Texas that is harassed by a couple of local men on the road who take his wife and daughter and leave him stranded in the desert.  Making his way back to town, he is put in touch with a detective (Michael Shannon), who sets about trying to find out who took his family.  The “fictional” story she reads and visualizes in her head pictures Gyllenhaal as the father, Tony.  His wife, in a smart bit of casting, is portrayed by Isla Fisher, someone who looks very similar to Amy Adams.  As she reads, she begins to recall old memories of her relationship with Edward and the eventual dissolution of their marriage.

Ford has crafted a film that is visually striking.  There is a great contrast between how things look in LA where Adams’ Susan reads the manuscript and in Texas, where the manuscript takes place.  Both are harsh, but the LA visuals have a colder visual palette while much of the visuals in Texas have a sunbaked, sometimes washed out look to them.

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In fact, upon first glance, I thought this film was much more style than substance and that while it looked great, it was mostly artifice and that the plot was rather thin.  However, sitting with it for a while, I think there is at least a little more going on below the surface than meets the eye; similar to the powerful, fierce exterior than Susan puts on, there is a faint heart beating beneath it all.

Edward’s manuscript is a not-so-thinly-veiled allegory about the end of his relationship with Susan.  When they were together, she tried to be supportive of him and his writing, but she ultimately did not believe in him enough, came to resent him, and ended up hurting him.  He poured that pain and hurt into this story, which he titled Nocturnal Animals, which Susan notes is something he used to call her because she had difficulty sleeping.  In a lot of ways, the film plays out like an ultimate male revenge fantasy where a scorned, betrayed lover gives a giant middle finger to the woman who broke his heart.  If that were all there was, this film would not be worth the time, despite some terrific performances, especially by Michael Shannon.

But the truth is that Edward has his pain, his loss, and his grief, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he has the truth, or all of the facts.  Susan is fully aware that she hurt him in an unforgiveable way and doesn’t need his manuscript to help her realize that.  Naturally, it stirs things up for her, and she says that she has been thinking about a lot because she is reading his book, but the conclusions she reaches seem to have been made up in her mind, at least subconsciously, before she reads it.  She has a rich, busy life, but she feels unfulfilled by her work and clearly has regrets about the decisions she has made in her life that have brought her to where she is.

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It’s funny, having just recently seen Manchester by the Sea and having that so fresh in my mind, how a director like Lonergan treats two exes in his film and how Ford treats the relationship between two exes here.  Naturally, every relationship and failed marriage is different. but Lonergan is completely sympathetic to his characters whereas I do not get the impression that Ford is interested in any sympathy here.  He has been on record saying that he is an “equal opportunity objectifier” and here I think he is trying to not just objectify in some way but to provoke as well.

I singled out Michael Shannon earlier, but there are several other strong performances here as well.  Amy Adams, who is having quite the year with this and Arrival (we won’t hold Batman v Superman against her), shows her versatility here.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, despite portraying a character that is truly odious and obnoxious, gives one of the better performances of his career to date.  Gyllenhaal plays a dual role and mostly makes it work, though his Edward is far less standout than some of the moments that Tony gets.

While it is not completely style and there is at least a bit more substance to it, there is still a bit of shallowness to all of it, and it’s also hard to get too invested in a fictional story within a fictional story.  But there is enough to it to recommend it.  At one point, Susan comments to an employee that the manuscript of her ex-husband is “violent and sad.”  There is a level of violence and sadness that hangs over and threatens almost all of this film in a stylized way.  Ford shows a command of the structure of the film and style of the film, both of which are an accomplishment that help where there may be some slack in the substance.

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Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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