Nocturnal Animals (2016) Focus/Drama-Thriller RT: 116 minutes Rated R (violence, menace, graphic nudity, language) Director: Tom Ford Screenplay: Tom Ford Music: Abel Korzeniowski Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey Release date: November 18, 2016 (Philadelphia, PA) Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Jena Malone, India Menuez, Kristin Bauer van Straten, Zawe Ashton.
Mainstream audiences are used to straightforward linear narratives. They’re used to movies with clear and concise meanings. As such, I can see where some will leave Nocturnal Animals dissatisfied, not sure what to make of it. Its meaning is elusive and will likely spark interesting conversations among viewers trying to wrap their minds around the on-screen events of the preceding two hours. Therein lies its excellence. To me, not knowing what a filmmaker is driving at makes for more satisfying entertainment than some mindless CGI-heavy SAV (Sensory Assault Vehicle). At the same time, it’s also frustrating. You feel like you either missed something or fell victim to a great big put-on by the filmmaker. It takes a skilled filmmaker to make such a movie and make it work such as writer-director Tom Ford (A Single Man) does with Nocturnal Animals.
The movie opens with imagery so shocking and grotesque, it immediately commands your attention. It’s a series of slo-mo shots of obese naked women dancing around with pom-poms and sparklers like deranged versions of cheerleaders. It turns out it’s an art exhibit being shown at a Los Angeles gallery owned by Susan Morrow (Adams, Arrival), profoundly unhappy despite her life of wealth and affluence. She lives in one of those sterile concrete-and-glass Modernist houses preferred by the upper 1% in the reel world. She’s married to Hutton (Hammer, The Social Network), an impossibly handsome blue-blood who’s not-so-secretly cheating on her. Not that Susan cares anyway. He’s just one part of a life that she’s come to despise.
One day, Susan receives a mysterious package in the mail from her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler). It’s a manuscript for a novel he’s written. It’s called “Nocturnal Animals”, the same nickname he gave her when they were together. It’s also dedicated to her. She starts reading it and that’s where the second narrative kicks in.
Family man Tony (Gyllenhaal) embarks on a road trip across Texas with his wife Laura (Fisher, Wedding Crashers) and teenage daughter India (Bamber, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). One night, while driving on a dark empty road in the middle of nowhere, they literally run into trouble with a trio of sociopathic rednecks led by Ray (Brit actor Johnson, Kick-Ass), a complete psycho. The scenario goes from bad to worse in a matter of minutes and ends with Tony’s wife and daughter being abducted by Ray and one of his companions. The other guy forces Tony to drive to a desolate arroyo where he kicks him out the car.
For a while, Nocturnal Animals jumps back and forth between the two stories then Ford does something surprising. He introduces a third narrative by flashing back to when Susan and Edward were together. At first, their marriage was great. Then it fell apart just as Susan’s snobbish mother (Linney, Sully) predicted it would. In leaving Edward, Susan inflicts such heavy emotional damage, it’s surprising he came back from it. Or did he?
Nothing in Nocturnal Animals is superfluous. The scenes from the past are there to explain where the main characters are in the present. Ford keeps shifting back to the book-within-a-movie scenes because it illustrates how Edward is finally attempting to find closure. It could be argued that it’s also a form of revenge in that it leaves Susan disturbed and shaken. I won’t go into specifics but I will say it gets ugly and violent especially when Tony is given the opportunity to take revenge by a lawman (Shannon, Midnight Special) with nothing to lose.
So what does all of this ultimately accomplish? We can all agree that it forces Susan to confront the truth about her life. From the outside, it may look good. In reality, it’s empty and unfulfilling. Okay, what else? That’s up to the viewer. What do the events of the novel represent? What is Edward’s end game? Will Susan do anything to change her life? And what about that final scene? It’s fairly ambiguous. Or is it? Like many elements of Nocturnal Animals, it’s subject to the viewer’s own interpretation. I’m certain that all those who choose to see it will have theories about it and other aspects of the film. That, my friends, is precisely the point. It gets you talking. Not many movies do that anymore, at least not in the way Nocturnal Animals does. Brilliant!
Filmmaking is Tom Ford’s second job. He’s actually a fashion designer and you can see it in his visual style. The shiny and clean surfaces, the interiors, the spatial elements; any given frame of the movie could easily be an ad for perfume or designer clothes. Beyond that, he shoots the scenes in Susan’s upper-crust world in a way that makes it all seem like a surreal dream populated by aliens that look and act human but not quite. What he’s done is fashion a thriller in the traditional of Hitchcock then threw in a bit of David Lynch weirdness (in particular, Blue Velvet) for good measure. The scene where Ray takes Tony’s family is especially well done. It’s as scary, uncomfortable and suspenseful as Lynch’s 1986 classic which, in my opinion, is one of best American movies EVER!
The acting is also flawless. Adams shows much of the same sadness here as she did in last week’s cerebral sci-fi drama Arrival. Whereas her sadness in Arrival was caused by a tragedy, her sadness in Nocturnal Animals is totally of her own doing. The choices she made then have led up to where she is now. Gyllenhaal shows much of the same intensity as in Nightcrawler. I never thought the star of Bubble Boy and Prince of Persia would become such an accomplished actor. Johnson is suitably skeezy and skeevy as the primary antagonist. His character is a creep, no two ways about it. Shannon is always great and with Nocturnal Animals, his winning streak remains unbroken. I like that Ford writes such fully-realized characters rather than rely on one-dimensional character types to drive the story.
I really don’t want to say anymore about Nocturnal Animals. Rather, I’d like you to go out and see it and form your own ideas. This is one of those rare times when I wish I went with somebody. I’d love to sit down and have a conversation about the movie. It’s been a day and my mind is still reeling. This is a definite must-see! It’s on my top ten for the year. In fact, it’s my choice for best film of 2016 (so far). If you love provocative films, DO NOT MISS IT!!!