The new year is only two weeks old, but Nocturnal Animals is likely going to make my top 5 movies of 2017. I saw this a couple of days ago on my birthday, a few weeks after being disappointed that it had already left the major theater chains here in Minnesota around Christmas, and I left the movie impressed. It’s hard to ignore a movie with a cast boasting Jake Gyllenhaal (Enemy), Amy Adams (Arrival), and Michael Shannon (Midnight Special), and even though I still haven’t seen Tom Ford’s first movie, A Single Man, I remembered the good buzz around it. On the strength of this sophomore effort, I’ll move it up the queue.
Nocturnal Animals is based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, and adapted well by Ford himself. It’s a complex, layered work that successfully intertwines two stories, one set in the real world focusing on Susan Morrow (Adams) visualizing the other story as she reads it from a novel manuscript sent to her by the auther, her former husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal). The story unfolds in a very pleasing, non linear manner thanks to the conceit of having Gyllenhaal play both Edward, and the main protagonist in the novel, Tony Hastings. Having not read the book either (I know, I suck), I had to go off of the Wikipedia summary to get a sense of what Ford may have added, dropped, or changed for his adaptation, and it seems what he added was greater depth in the character of Susan, which makes a lot of sense if Susan in the novel was just a framing device. In the movie version, Ford weaves the story of present day Susan, unhappy and emotionally barren, with the bittersweet story of her romance and eventual breakup with Edward throughout, overlayed upon the narrative of the novel (brought to life for the audience as she reads). It could be a confusing movie for some because of the structure – this is not the kind of date movie if you have a significant other who constantly asks what’s happening onscreen, it’s the kind of movie you need to watch and absorb at the right speed, with no distractions.
My main criticism of the movie is that the real world story of Susan and her problems – mostly caused by her philandering husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) – are not hugely interesting. Personally speaking, I’m fed up seeing the problems of the fabulously wealthy. I get that problems are all about economies of scale (I mostly can’t stand the phrase First World Problems, but I appreciate the philosophy behind it), but I find it very hard to care for people who live in lavish multi-million dollar homes, drive cars that cost upwards of $100,000, and who live the casually detached lives of the wealthy. It isn’t that I’m jealous, I’m moreso talking about the lack of audience identification I feel for people who behave as remotely as everyone in the “real world” part of this movie, from Susan (an upscale art gallery owner) and Hutton (businessman) to the people they interact with. They all seem rarified and robotically dull. A movie featuring just these characters would be absolutely insufferable. Fortunately, the meat of the movie is the novel Susan reads, Nocturnal Animals, and it’s mostly absorbing. Tony Hastings and his wife and daughter, are driving through the nighttime West Texas desert when they’re accosted by a trio of redneck thugs, led by Ray (Kick Ass himself, Aaron Taylor Johnson). As the confrontation escalates, Tony becomes separated from his wife and daughter. To say any more would be spoilers, so let’s just leave it at that. When a period of time has elapsed, and Michael Shannon’s Detective Bobby Andes appears, the stakes and tension are raised by multiple increments in Act 2, resulting in a pretty terrific moviewatching experience. This part of the movie is the showpiece – so much so that when it cuts back to Adams’ beautiful, moping Susan, I hoped these scenes wouldn’t last too long, and Ford keeps them at the right length. The story of Tony and Bobby and Ray is marked by typically great acting from Gyllenhaal, whom I’m big fan of, and Michael Shannon has got to be one of the most underrated actors in movies today – he puts in another excellent performance here. Taylor-Johnson’s Ray is a step up for him, and while I’m not sure it was Golden Globe worthy, it’s his career performance to date, and I’ll be surprised if this isn’t a springboard for him. The opening scenes on the deserted, late night highway are harrowing and tap into deep primal fears – not just of losing loved ones, but the reducing, self-loathing of powerlessness, and both Gyllanhaal and Taylor-Johnson’s escalating face to face is expertly handled by Ford. The entire scene which takes place in roughly fifteen minutes, is one that’s increasingly uncomfortable to watch, as it should be. It stirs up many emotions, and leaves you with the same sense of rage and frustrations that Gyllanhaal captures with Tony.
I’ve criticized the less dramatic scenes in the real world of the movie, but as you watch, you become aware of a growing subtext even here (kind of clumsily and obviously handled by Ford in one particular scene, I have to say), leading to a payoff in the final scene that feels both right and wrong, an ending where a lesser writer likely would have chosen one or the other. The contradictory thoughts I had about Susan at the end of the movie was another example of the complexity of the script, and while writing this review, it makes me wonder why more effort isn’t made in the writing process in so many scripts. Even CGI-fuelled blockbusters like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story would benefit so much if writers didn’t feel they could get away with being lazy in knowing that banks of digital artists were there to paper over the cracks with eye candy. Two vastly different movies of course, but the lack of character development in the latter made for a skimmable movie, not likely to live on in the memory.
Nocturnal Animals is a striking movie – once it moves past the self-indulgent, pretentious opening and into the story proper, it’s an absorbing piece of cinema that I highly recommend.