Nocturnal Animals (2016)
After directing critically-acclaimed “A Single Man” back in 2009, Tom Ford has decided to try his hand in directing something darker and more complicated, an adaptation of the novel by Austin Wright “Tony and Susan”. “Nocturnal Animals” is a drama/thriller containing two stories running in parallel: one in which Susan (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner, receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the impact that his forthcoming novel has on her; and another one in which the story in Edward’s manuscript is told. In that story, Edward and his family are fighting off the deadly advances of a gang on the way to their vacation, and the result of their on-the-road struggle is a horrific crime and a painful detective work.
One of the great things about this film is how intelligently and stylishly the story is told and the picture presented. The storyline shifts from Susan, her reminiscing over her past life and encounters with Edward, and the terrific crime and the subsequent police investigation in Edward’s book. The scenes of crime and their impact on Edward are emotional to watch, but the film becomes even more so as Susan reflects on Edward’s writing. The film constantly keeps its audience guessing whether and how Edward’s written story relates to Susan, and if there is perhaps some truth to Edward’s story. While the film’s part involving Susan is set in the atmosphere of total calmness, the story involving Edward on the road is portrayed in a very hectic, tense and distressing manner, and the contrast between the two is dramatic. The feeling here is that Susan is stuck in her “art”, which is only an imitation of real life, and the job of Susan is to artificially construct reality, as she lives in a “sterile” and spacious studio devoid of real warmth and love. In the film, the audience finds out that Susan is not true to herself and her purpose in life. On the other hand and in the stark contrast, Edward (in real life) remained true to who he was, committed to his writing and literature, and, in the novel, he fights for real justice and truth after the crimes committed on the highway. The fact that it is Susan who actually lives in the real world, and it is Edward who resides in the fictional novel fighting for truth is the final irony of the movie. In sum, because of its intricate plot, the film is akin to one complex, multi-layered story, which not only explores the psychology behind personality growth and the disillusionment with professional successes and family/societal expectations, but also such concepts as victimhood and grief. The film manages to instil the sense of mystery and suspense from the very beginning, and keeps its audience guessing until the very end.
Moreover, as a character in her own right, Susan is fascinating. She appears genuinely disturbed by Edward’s manuscript, and, later, the audience finds out more of Susan and Edward’s history, including the fact that she was losing faith in his aspirations of becoming a successful writer, and about her complicated relationship with her mother. In that sense, the film jumps back and forth in time, and what the audience gains is an interesting insight into Susan, her dilemmas, and, eventually, the causes of her inner betrayal.
The opening sequence of “Nocturnal Animals” deserves a special mention. This is a controversial sequence of naked overweight middle-aged women dancing, as a video art display at Susan’s art gallery. Provoking a shocking reaction at the Toronto Film Festival, the usage of this sequence was vehemently defended by Tom Ford himself as something original and “out-of-the-box”, immediately capturing the attention of the audience. This is certainly true, and it is also true that, although this sequence does not contribute anything of real essence to the film, it does make a statement about the society’s relentless pursuit of “wrong” values, and about the true peace and happiness that a person can only find when he/she is in-tune and comfortable with his own “imperfect” self. The film’s opening sequence is also distinguished by its hauntingly beautiful music with the background being the shots of highways and tall buildings at dusk, enclosing the viewer into the atmosphere of pure mystery and darkness. The soundtrack by Abel Korzeniowski throughout the whole film is a work of pure brilliance, fitting the picture perfectly, and it is a wonder how it could have been bypassed by the Academy.
The cast of “Nocturnal Animals” is very impressive, and the performances in the film are rightly considered to be among the very best of 2016. Apart from Amy Adams (“Her” (2013), “Arrival” (2016)), and Jake Gyllenhaal (“Donnie Darko” (2001), “Zodiac” (2007)) in their respective roles of the wife and the ex-husband, there are also Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road” (2008), “Take Shelter” (2011)) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Albert Nobbs” (2011), “Anna Karenina” (2012)) in the film. Moreover, Michael Sheen (“Midnight in Paris” (2011), “Far from the Madding Crowd” (2015)), makes his appearance, and even Jena Malone (“Donnie Darko”, “The Neon Demon” (2016)) and Kurl Glusman (“Love” (2015), “The Neon Demon”) are involved in the film. Gyllenhaal should feel right at home in his role of a man fighting for justice after a crime or a mix-up, because, previously, he performed similar roles in “Zodiac” and in “Enemy” (2014). Gyllenhaal is very believable in his role, and makes for a very sympathetic lead character. He gives a great performance, as does Shannon in the role of a sheriff, Bobby, who investigates Edward’s case. Shannon was in fact the only actor being nominated by the Academy for this film. Who impresses here the most, however, is Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the role of half-crazy criminal Ray Marcus. Taylor-Johnson plays a very unlikeable character; makes him truly feared, dangerous and totally unpredictable; and it is almost surprising how good Taylor-Johnson fits into this challenging role.
Give its complicated, multi-layered premise filled with tension of something sinister about to happen, the ending of “Nocturnal Animals” does feel underwhelming, and Ford does leave too much to subjective interpretation at the end. The film never quite manages to satisfactorily connect all the dots it left suspended in the film, for example, make satisfying connections between the disturbing content of the manuscript and the real life events. The theme of revenge is also not fully explored in the film, and it feels like Ford toyed with too many things in the film, with the sad result being that he had to leave many interesting concepts underdeveloped.
“Nocturnal Animals” ends up being not as clever or complicated as maybe initially assumed, but Ford still manages to find a right balance between portraying an engrossing, intelligent story and styling his film with enough visuals to make it both originally presented and beautiful to behold. On top of that, the film shines brilliant performances and has an unforgettable soundtrack. 8/10