Nocturnal Animals Movie Review
I didn’t know what to expect from Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, since my primary association of him is with expensive clothing that I don’t quite understand are popular. However, the buzz around the film has been hypnotic for me personally since it’s been compared to the surrealistic dreamscapes of the David Lynch style of filmmaking.
I purposely avoided as much exposure to this film as I could to maximize the experience of being dropped into a story I didn’t know much about other than being told it’s centered on revenge. After seeing it and marinating on it for a few days, I can confirm that it’s probably the best way to go into viewing the film because it was quite an emotional ride I didn’t see coming.
In the film, Amy Adams plays the role of Susan Morrow, a disenchanted art dealer whose life seems full of material but devoid of any other kind of substance. It’s obvious her husband is sleeping with other woman and it appears to have taken a crippling hold on her. It just so happens that in the middle of her ennui, a piece of her past has reappeared in the form of a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield. The book is a crime novel called “Nocturnal Animals” and it’s been penned in Susan’s honor. This is where the film jumps into another film as we see Jake Gyllenhall play the role of the author who has put himself into the book as the character Tony Hastings.
Tony is taking his wife and teenage daughter on a family trip across Texas but things go horribly wrong one night when a group of outback scoundrels lead by a derelict named Ray (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) harasses and rams them off the road. With no one in site and in the middle of nowhere, Tony is put into every father’s nightmare as he’s been rendered helpless to the miscreants’ torment. After one of the most uncomfortable and intense scenes of the year, I’ll leave it to you to think about what they do with his wife and daughter. When it’s over, Tony is left in emotional pieces and seeks the help of Detective Andes, played flawlessly by Michael Shannon, to find the whereabouts of his family.
The film takes another jump though and shows scenes from Susan’s life before she got into the art world. We learn that Edward and Susan had a relationship that didn’t meet the approval of Susan’s conservative mother. Susan defies her mother’s claims that Edward can’t provide for her as a writer, and is too weak to be the husband of a woman from her privileged class. This seed planted by her mother seems to be what lead to their separation and used as an allegory told through the dramatic tale of Edward’s book. The film proceeds to jump into the three different narratives being told and weaves them into either an enigmatic or forceful ending depending on how the story spoke to you, but I’ll get back to this later.
Nocturnal Animals received moderate recognition at the Golden Globes with Tom Ford being nominated for best screenplay and Aaron Taylor Johnson winning for best supporting actor, but I suspect the Oscars will be kinder. Both Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhall have turned into two of the most consistent and respected actors in the business but it’s Michael Shannon who really stood out above the rest. Detective
Andes playing the role of old cowboy stood in such enjoyable contrast to Gyllenall’s indecisive characters that it seemed to be the only comforting moments on screen in an otherwise trying film. If Shannon was calming to watch, Johnon’s role as the villain was the complete inverse. Every now and then there are antagonists that stand out, and for me personally, I find the character of Ray to be one of the most enraging ones I’ve encountered on screen. Gyllenhall’s dual roles should also be worthy of recognition from the academy next month when nominations are announced but as for Adams, it’s hard to even think of it as her best work this past season (see The Arrival for that).
With revenge being at the heart of this story, it’s difficult to consider this an enjoyable film. The subject matter is dark but so is the pain Edward felt when he lost Susan. If you’ve ever gone through a bad break up and witnessed someone move on without you, it can be debilitating and it seems pretty clear that Edward never recovered from their separation even many years later. I don’t want to give away too much, but as the story unfolds it really makes you question who to root for since both Susan and Edward subtly reveal their flaws throughout the film. However, it’s hard to divorce Edward from the character of Tony even though it’s a supposed work fiction. This brings us the ending. Don’t read further if you want to avoid a spoiled ending.
At the end of the film, it’s revealed what Susan meant by saying she left Edward in the worst way. Not only did she abruptly leave him, but in the process she also took the life of their child in order to marry a man that would provide her with the material life her mother envisioned for her. It becomes clear that Edward’s story about a man thought of as weak seeking revenge illustrates his own personal struggle to prove that he isn’t to his former wife. I suppose that just like Susan killed their future, Edward killed the family in his story.
After reading the book, Susan seems to realize that her life has become a sham and attempts to rekindle what she lost by meeting him for dinner. In the final scene of the book, though, Tony ends up shooting himself after finally getting his revenge on Ray. This is why my sense is that this book is not actually a book at all and more of a passionate suicide note to his former love. While waiting alone at the restaurant, Susan seems to realize that Edward won’t be coming now or ever again. I think she also realizes that the guilt Tony must have felt in the story is now the guilt Susan is going to live through the rest of her life knowing that this will be the price of betraying the love of someone who truly loved and believed in her. The cost of that will be living the shallow loveless marriage she is trapped in. How’s that for revenge?
Of course this is just my interpretation. You’ll have to see it for yourself to get your own reading of it, and that’s what makes this a memorable film.