Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Nocturnal Animals opens with a credits sequence that may very well go down as the most visceral and unexpected of the year. It’s a sequence that showcases obese naked women dancing and performing strange acts of jubilation, all while a dramatic orchestral score plays. It’s imagery that’s morose and comical at the same time, and at the end, it’s revealed to be a video piece for an art opening that protagonist Susan is curating. This opening certainly gains the viewer’s undivided attention with ease, but like Nocturnal Animals itself, the opening is duplicitous eye candy and confused towards its own artistry.

Yet, it also is a fitting setup for the film’s plot. Susan (Amy Adams) is a gallery operator in Los Angeles who dresses in elegance and modern art, which also seems to mask her unsatisfying marriage and financial woes. Susan, however, soon receives a surprising gift from her ex-husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal). Tony has written a novel that is going to be published, but he’s sent his manuscript to Susan as well as dedicated the book to her.

From here, the narrative jumps from Susan’s real life to the story that she is observing through Tony’s book. This story focuses on a Texan man, Edward (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who gets caught up in a horrible situation with a gang of ruthless rednecks. Rather inadvertently gaining the help of a dying sheriff (Michael Shannon), Edward finds himself in a bloody revenge.

Nocturnal Animals, based on Austin Wright’s 1992 novel Tony and Susan, is a film that attempts to be several things. It tries to be a darkly-tinged commentary on marriage as well as a subversive and modern take on neo-noir. It also tries to perform the challenging act of telling a story within a story, which historically hasn’t led to too many memorable cinematic experiences (name one besides Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation). It’s perhaps through this ambition that Nocturnal Animals finds its Achilles heel and comes across as a film that’s parts are greater than its whole by a large margin.

Perhaps Nocturnal Animals’s foremost problem is this: it only succeeds in making one of its two stories interesting. Susan’s storyline is clearly the more realized, and not just because it isn’t the “fictional” one. It’s the most nuanced and has the best use of symbolism and character examination. Amy Adams also, once again, gives a commanding performance, solidifying her role as one of her generation’s best (and most beautiful) leading actresses.

The fiction narrative, however, is far more problematic—namely because the writing for it is so dull and the tone of it frequently repellent. Rather than handling the material delicately, it just comes off as lurid, with brutal violence and unappealing characters. While it’s obvious that writer/director Tom Ford is hoping this story will speak of Susan’s inner turmoil, it fails to impress with its weak dialogue and cheap plot devices (Michael Shannon’s sheriff’s justification for helping Edward outside of the law is merely because he has lung cancer and has nothing to lose).

While the acting is mostly serviceable (specifically from Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is making an extreme discharge away from his typecast in superhero roles), it’s disappointing that there aren’t too many visible parallels in Gyllenhaal’s two performances. It's a shame that this fiction narrative wasn’t efficiently handled, as what could have served as a true pathos for Nocturnal Animals instead comes off closer to subterfuge.

That said, on a pure cinematic level, Nocturnal Animals is lushly presented. Tom Ford made his directorial debut in 2009 with A Single Man, which showed he had a talent for enunciating character studies and capturing really evocative shots. The film never diminishes on beauty shots (once again, particularly in the Susan storyline) that speak volumes more about the film’s characters than the dialogue does.

The movie is also augmented by a bang-up editing job from Joan Sobel. She captures a seamless flow for the film, which couldn’t be easy given that it not only features two-storylines, but is also non-linear. Still, she succeeds in making the transitions palpable using minimal handholding with smooth cuts and good timing.

So, Nocturnal Animals stands as an announcement of Tom Ford’s auteurship, if little else than that. Still, while not necessarily a good movie, Nocturnal Animals completes the remarkable task of being interesting for its entire run, even when its quality is most in question. It certainly is thematically undernourishing and concludes on a note that’s both hackneyed and middling, but the trek getting there isn’t boring. It won’t be one of 2016’s most fondly remembered achievements (especially with Paul Verhoeven’s masterpiece Elle being a far stronger psychological thriller), but it does suggest that Tom Ford will have a much more enticing project in the future.

See also: Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

 


Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon. You can find out more about him at his blog-site Redgunner5.

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