movie reviews Nocturnal Animals

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS Review: Horrific, Beautiful Tension

Monday, November 21, 2016 Rob Samuelson

It’s not comforting to realize that even the most elite and glamorous people are broken and empty, is it? Even when artists present their visions of reality, as Nocturnal Animals’ Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) does, those visions are often driven by little more than a desire for attention or money, a way to say, “Hey, look how interesting and button-pushing I can be.” Susan works in the art world, running gallery openings for installations full of hollow provocations, like a set of out-of-shape elderly women dancing naked in front of red curtains in a video piece that doubles as the movie’s opening credits sequence. At least, those pieces are hollow for the people in the world of Nocturnal Animals, because they were created from a place of misanthropy, not a desire to learn something about the world -- Susan claims throughout her life (shown in flashback) that she is “too cynical” to become a great artist, and it shows.

Photo credit: Nocturnal Animals/Facebook

For those of us watching in the theater, the cesarean section scars and undulating flesh of these women (people who long ago lost the battle with age and gravity) offer more to chew on than shock value. Their red lipstick sparkles like Dorothy’s slippers in The Wizard of Oz, leading one to the falseness of art -- those red slippers are so memorable partly because filmmaking tricks  make them pop in the viewers’ eyes, bringing to mind how manipulative art can be. These amateur entertainers’ red surroundings recall Twin Peaks’ most malevolently surreal environments by holding up a funhouse mirror to an industry Nocturnal Animals’ writer-director, Tom Ford, knows well. Ford’s day job is designing fashion and his second film (after 2009’s A Single Man) often reads as though Ford is opening up his memory bank for all to see. Every decision he makes in depicting Susan’s life -- her home is so sparsely decorated that it resembles a sterilized operating room with a nice view -- is a self-assured way of depicting someone who lives in a constant crisis of confidence -- not a surprise, given the cheating ways of her distant-but-handsome second husband, played by Armie Hammer. She wants to do something to break out of her doldrums, but she is either too lazy or too numb to the inanity of her life, hopping from cocktail party to cocktail party, hosted by Hollywood oddities like a male-female married couple who openly acknowledge the husband’s (Michael Sheen) homosexuality.

It is when Susan is startled by a work of vibrance that she begins to feel something outside of arch detachment from everything around her -- and she does not like being made to feel things. Her ex-husband, an author named Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), sends her an advance copy of his novel, which shares the film’s name. It is also a direct allusion to the nickname he had for her (and her insomniatic nights) during their time together. Considering the extreme sexual violence and despair depicted in the novel, Susan begins to worry about her ex-husband’s feelings toward her and the world in general.

Ford turns the “novel” into a movie-within-a-movie, with Gyllenhaal pulling double duty as the bearded protagonist, Tony Hastings, who runs into trouble with a group of Texan ne'er do wells while on a road trip with his wife (Isla Fisher, almost certainly cast because of her resemblance to Amy Adams) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). An unwanted game of chicken for the Hastings family turns into something far more disturbing in a hurry. The Texas villains, led by Godzilla’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the embodiment of malignant, cyclical abuse (he uses the fear he instills in people as an excuse to do horrific violence against them), turn Tony’s life into a nightmare that can only end in revenge -- helped along by a blunt, hateful lawman (Michael Shannon), riddled with lung cancer and equipped with a dry wit that lifts Nocturnal Animals out of despair for short but brilliant bursts.

This would be pulpy and trashy fun as it is, but as with the “art” piece that begins the film, Ford has more on his mind than shock or entertainment value. He wants to get to the heart of how creators use their lives in every part of their art, which shines a bright, nauseating light on the most wicked creative works. But Ford’s vision, as shot by director of photography Seamus McGarvey, looks for (and finds) beauty even in the worst parts of human nature. McGarvey’s camera seems like it has been transplanted from the editorial magazine spreads of Ford’s fashion world. The camera, more often than not, is stationary. It resembles still photography more than the kinetic, visceral cameras that typically present thrillers. The film’s actors are required to be more still than they otherwise might under the direction of a more hyperactive filmmaker, to force their characters to consider the actions they are about to take, and then to ruminate on those choices after they witness the finality of what they have done.

This horrified tranquility allows Ford and his editor, Joan Sobel, to play with rhythm and juxtaposition in increasingly elaborate (and evocative) ways as the movie progresses. In moments of grief, they cut between Tony and Susan, who projects her poor behavior against her “sensitive” former husband onto the slumped, fictional Tony. She worries that this novel is her ex-husband’s way of expressing his decades-old grievances with the way their relationship ended and she is not sure how to feel about it. Indeed, she is unsure how to feel in general -- being beset with long-term insomnia will do that to a person. As Susan’s anxiety increases, Sobel’s cuts come faster and with more authority, making up for the camera’s general lack of movement. When it comes time to fill in the gaps in Susan’s and Edward’s past, Sobel slows things down to let Adams and Gyllenhaal (hitherto unseen in the “real world” of the movie) grow apart, with their differing opinions of what it means to be “ambitious” causing unbearable tension -- not unlike the seemingly interminable (in a good way) moments of waiting for explosions of violence to occur in Tony’s story. The mental and emotional gymnastics Susan performs while she decides whether or not to contact the man she once loved (and whose book enthralls her) becomes just as pulse pounding as the hostage situations in the pulp novel.

Nocturnal Animals’ open ending does not neatly resolve its protagonists’ 20-year-old issues with each other. We cannot know how things will work out in the end, but luckily we have art, like that in Edward’s soon-to-be-published novel, to provide us with pat endings. Even if they’re upsetting, they’re closure. That’s more than most of us get.

Director: Tom Ford
Writer: Tom Ford
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon
Rating: Four stars out of five
Available in theaters now

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