Nocturnal Animals Review

Nocturnal Animals (2016) Movie Review by John Walsh

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

 

Director: Tom Ford
Writers: Tom Ford (screenplay), Austin Wright (novel)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon

Nocturnal Animals, the latest film from Tom Ford, focuses on the beautiful, seemingly rich and successful, Los Angeles gallery owner, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). A west Texas debutant we learn later, she lives an extravagant lifestyle, with artwork aplenty hanging on the walls and other oddities dotted around her modern penthouse. It’s quickly apparent however that she’s deeply unhappy, with trouble brewing below the surface. She despises her job, is crippled with insomnia and her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) has made some bad business decisions, leaving them teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. A strange package arrives at her residence and after giving herself a vicious looking paper cut in the process of opening it, we learn that within this is the manuscript of a new novel penned by her ex-husband. Dedicated to Susan, and having not spoken to him for the best part of 20 years, curiosity gets the better of her and she begins reading it, quickly becoming engrossed.

The focus then flips to the perspective of the novel, becoming a mini film within the larger main story. Following the Texas man, Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he sets out on a road trip with his wife and daughter. Driving in the dead of night, on an empty, pitch black highway, they become embroiled in a terrifying cat and mouse chase with degenerate rednecks. The three of them are attacked, the overly timid Tony is easily overpowered and both his wife/daughter are kidnapped and later killed, leaving him questioning his masculinity and power in the aftermath. The novel plays out as a sort of tragic, therapy session on their failed marriage. The events that transpire on screen during the fictitious scenes, a manifestation of the pain Edward felt after his split. He wants to make Susan aware of the suffering she caused him and it appears to work too, as she begins to look sorrowfully into her past.

The film utilises flashback scenes throughout to flesh out Susan’s past and we’re even offered a brief glimpse of the tumultuous relationship with her mother (Laura Linney). The latter prophetically telling Susan that a marriage between the two will be destined to failed and that Edward lacks mental strength, as well as the driven attitude to keep her happy. The highs and lows of her marriage are then played out, the brutal way she ends it giving an illuminating insight into the clear allegory of the novel. She’s seen questioning Edwards artistic ability, before ending their marriage prematurely and even going as far as aborting their baby behind his back. Meanwhile, in the novel, we continue to follow Tony as he enlists the help of gruff detective, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), in an attempt to get justice. They investigate for a year, before finally narrowing in on two of the three the culprits, Lou and Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Quick justice is served shortly thereafter, with Bobby, who we learn is suffering from terminal lung cancer and in no mood for letting the scumbags off lightly, shooting the former dead, whilst helping to lure the ringleader Ray to his end. Tony corners him, and after a short, tense standoff, finally avenges his family’s death. There’s a rather bizarre moment afterwards, when he appears to shoot himself accidentally, before crawling outside and succumbing to his wound.

Following these forays into Edwards past, the true allegorical significance behind his literary doppelgängers tragedy and the wider story as a whole is revealed. The devastation felt by Tony from losing his family within the novel echoing the grief of the author losing his unborn baby and wife. The emotional turmoil, eventual killing of the rednecks and his own death, representative of Edwards grief over the years, the eventual beating of his inner demons and finally being able to move on with his life. The films ambiguous end scene features Susan being stood up by Edward, after requesting dinner with her former husband. A final confirmation perhaps that he has moved on from his troubled past.

Both Adams and Gyllenhaal do a fine job in this film. Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson though, put in the standout performances for me. The former referring to his character as a ‘grotesque sort of angel’. A perfect description for the calm, guiding influence his character provides to Tony. He’s also highly likeable, his devil may care attitude, thanks in part to terminal cancer, giving him an almost humorous brutality when dealing with the murderous rednecks. Johnson is almost unrecognisable in this role as the redneck plumber/rapist/killer. Sporting an authentic southern drawl and long, unkempt hair, not to mention a shaggy beard, that’s every bit as crazy looking as the maniacal look in his eyes. I couldn’t possibly write this review without giving mention to the highly memorable scene involving Ray and an outside toilet. If any further insight is needed into the arrogant nature of the character then look no further.

The film itself is highly stylistic in its visuals. Seamus McGarvey, skilfully providing a stark contrast between the barren, gritty, rural Texas and the lonely cityscapes of Los Angeles. From the artwork on the walls to the immaculate costume. Musically, the score is well refined with clear classical origins. Featuring some beautiful string arrangements. It does a good job of switching things up as the film jumps between the action based novel scenes and the slower, more emotional parts featuring Susan.

Ultimately, I’d love to say sit here and say that it’s a fantastic film, but unfortunately that would be a lie and I can’t. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad film, just merely above average to good. I highly enjoyed the thrilling trips the film took into Edwards brutal world and the acting throughout was fantastic. However, it lacked emotional substance of any kind and whilst I understood the underlying theme of the film. I just wasn’t invested in the two main protagonists enough to actually care.

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