NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016) – Thought-Provoking Creative Exercise in Moviemaking

nocturnal_animals

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, the new thriller by writer/director Tom Ford, and starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, is the type of movie that gives its audience lots to think about, and the more you think about it the more you like it.

I’m still thinking about it.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS opens with one of the most difficult-to-watch opening credits you’ll ever see in a movie.  The credits play over images of naked obese women dancing, in slow motion with nothing left to the imagination.  When the credits end, it’s revealed that these women are part of a modern art exhibit hosted by the film’s main character, art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams).

But even the reason for this choice of exhibit, these opening credit images, is something to think about, expecially when you juxtapose the outward ugliness and happy faces of these obese women with main character Susan Morrow’s outward beauty and internal sorrow.

So, Susan Morrow is a very successful art dealer and gallery owner, but she’s also terribly unhappy.  Her current marriage with the handsome and successful Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) is not going well, as her hubby is having an affair.  She’s also not happy with her career.

In the midst of all this, she receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a novel he has written entitled Nocturnal Animals, which he has dedicated to her.  She starts reading it and is immediately captivated by the story, which we see unfold on screen.  A man Tony Hastings (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife and daughter are driving along a lonely stretch of Texas highway when they cross paths with a carload of unsavory characters who force them off the road.

After a terse and very uncomfortable conversation, the three men, led by an aggressive sociocapth named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) abduct Tony’s wife and daughter.  What follows and what horrible things happen to Tony and his family make up the bulk of the novel.

To Susan, it’s clear that this novel is symbolic of what happened to Edward in their marriage, specifically what she did to Edward as she ended their marriage.  She begins to think back to that time, when she and Edward were married, and these scenes are shown via flashback.

There are three stories being told in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS:  Susan’s present day predicament, dealing with her crumbling marriage and unsatisfying art career, the novel, which tells the fictional story of Tony — by far the most compelling part of the movie—, and Susan’s looking back at her first marriage to Edward.

Does the telling of all three stories work?  Do they seamlessly make up one terrific movie?  Not exactly, because there are certainly flaws here.  But NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is such a creative ambitious movie it’s easy to look past them.

The acting is excellent.  I’m a huge fan of Amy Adams and she doesn’t disappoint here at all.  Susan is a terribly unhappy character, and Adams captures this sadness brilliantly.  The entire movie is steeped in sadness, all the way down to its final shot.

By the far, the best story in the movie is the fictional one told in Edward’s novel.  That story also features the best acting in the movie.  Jake Gyllenhaal is very good as tormented husband Tony, the fictional counterpart of Edward.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson knocks it out of the park as the unhinged Ray.  Even better than both these guys is Michael Shannon as rogue law man Bobby Andes, who makes it his mission to hunt down Ray and his friends and bring them to justice.

I found Shannon’s performance mesmerizing.  The best part is he lifts Bobby above the usual rogue law man character and makes him nuanced enough to stand on his own.  He really makes him a real person, which is pretty funny when you think about it, since Shannon is playing a fictional character in a novel!  His Bobby acts and looks like he walked off the set of another recent movie involving crime in Texas, HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), starring Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine, which came out earlier this year.

But the problem I had with this part of the movie is as good as it is, we know from the get-go that what we are watching is part of a fictional novel being read by Susan, and so while this is certainly creative, it also takes aways from the drama.  I was never as invested in these characters as I otherwise would have been, since I knew they weren’t real.

On the other hand, it’s clear that this story about Tony written by Edward is symbolic of what happened to his marriage with Susan, and how it impacted him.  As we see in the flashbacks, Susan ended their marriage in a truly horrible way.

It’s hinted at in the movie that Susan feels slightly threatened by the book, that she views its story as Edward seeking revenge against her.  I didn’t think this was played up enough in the movie.  I never got the sense Edward was a threatening person, nor did I feel Susan’s life was in danger because of him, which is too bad because this only would have added to the movie.

The ending to NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is a bold one and no doubt will leave some viewers upset, but I really liked it.  A running theme in the movie is how weak Edward is supposed to be.  At first, Susan defends her husband, saying he’s not weak but simply sensitive, but later, she changes her tune and even she is calling him weak.  The ending is Edward’s way of answering that accusation.

I enjoyed Tom Ford’s direction here.  As I said, he crafts the film so both visually and thematically it gives you a lot to think about. Likewise, it’s an excellent script by Ford, based on a novel by Austin Wright.  It tells three stories, all of them multi-layered, and it’s ambitious in its execution, even though I don’t think it all worked .

Even so, most mainstream movies today don’t require much brainwork, so it’s always refreshing to come across one that does.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is not a perfect movie, and it’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser or the type of movie you want to see on a date.  But it is a thought-provoking creative exercise in movie-making that succeeds in telling a very sad story.

And it is sad, from beginning to end.  Relentlessly sad.  It also does a fine job capturing the pain and sadness that goes with divorce and its aftermath.

You may not think you like this one as you walk out the theater, but if you give it some thought, and let some of the scenes seep into your consciousness afterwards, and if you ponder what it all means, you’ll find the answers add up to a satisfying conclusion.

One thing is for certain.  NOCTURNAL ANIMALS will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.

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