Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Adapted from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel, “Tony and Susan”, Nocturnal Animals has two storylines to follow, one the presumed reality, and the other a presumed fictitious one dramatized from the contents of the manuscript of a new novel written by one of the ‘real’ characters.  There are also flashback scenes from the mind of the main protagonist on the dissolution of the relationship between herself and the author of that manuscript, who has dedicated the novel to her for reasons she hasn’t quite made the connection to yet.

Amy Adams (Arrival, Batman v Superman) stars as ennui-addled Susan, the owner of a posh Los Angeles-based art gallery that has clearly seen its best days behind it. She’s the recipient of a manuscript entitled, “Nocturnal Animals”, written by her ex-husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal, Everest), who she left nineteen years back in order to pursue a relationship with her younger, more ambitious current husband (Hammer, The Birth of a Nation), the increasingly distant Hutton.  Susan envisions her ex as the main protagonist of the novel, Tony, whose road trip with his wife (Fisher, The Brothers Grimsby) and teenage daughter (Bamber, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) along a desolate stretch of highway in West Texas turns into a deadly game, when they become victims to a trio of ne’er-do-well locals out to make their lives miserable.

The more trying aspect of Nocturnal Animals is that the intensely gripping ‘fictional’ story is clearly so much more interesting to follow than the presumed real one, which mostly plays out like an angsty and prolonged rendition of a Calvin Klein ad (director Tom Ford’s background is in the fashion industry).  I suppose that may be part of the point — real life seems dull when you’re living it, especially compared to a narrative that concentrates only on the more exciting stuff, and can fabricate even more excitement as the story requires.

However, it does get to the point where the book she is reading is more exciting to follow cinematically that you might inaudibly groan whenever Ford snaps the film back to ‘reality’ by showing her reading the book and looking a little perturbed about its contents for several seconds, then walking around in a trance-like state as it has clearly shaken her into deep thought.  Did she do the right thing way back when, feeling like Edward might not be the person who could provide for her emotionally, physically, or financially?

The nature of the juxtaposition between these scenes is, ostensibly at first, for us to try to piece together the nature of the relationship the main stars once had, how it went awry, and whether or not going through it all again in her mind has her rethinking that decision to part ways that she made some nineteen years in the past.  Part of this is because the main protagonist in the novel she envisions as the author himself, perhaps borne from the fact that he always seemed to write about himself, even if in the fictional form.  Susan connected Edward with Tony as she reads, trying to diagnose him as if he were exploring his own feelings of inadequacy with Susan, who more or less told him she is leaving him because he is too weak without actually using the word.

Although much of Nocturnal Animals is subject to interpretation, there are definitely a few themes from which Tom Ford is channeling to make it something worth pondering.  One is the difference between perception and reality, art and artifice, style and substance, change and status quo, love and bring provided for, as well as beauty and ugliness, both internal and external.  There is a sterile nature to the scenes of Susan’s life amid the elites within the world of metropolitan art circles, where status and money are needed to stay relevant, contrasting the the dusty and possibly murderous one in what plays like a Cormac McCarthy version of rural Texas, where the perception of status and money are more likely to make you a mark for dangerous criminals.  This is a film of contrasts, which is made readily evident from the start, in which large, undulating bodies of obese and somewhat older women dance provocatively for us in slow motion, subverting our notions of what is meant to be beautiful by showcasing the kinds of bodies normally shunned by the art and fashion industries looking for waif thin and curveless.

While Nocturnal Animals is always interesting, the imbalance in the entertainment value between the two storylines is one that will likely draw some less patient viewers to wonder why the one involving Amy Adams is necessary at all, especially contrasting the lack of emotions given to Adams’ Susan versus the powerhouse performance from Gyllenhaal in portraying a man who is pushed to the very brink of fight or flight with his own beloved family.  These scenes during the narrative-within-a-narrative are also bolstered by a scene-stealing supporting turn from Michael Shannon, an actor who always gives more than what’s written on the page, turning the local police detective on edge of self-destruction, professionally and morally.

However, for those who are patient and willing to entertain deeper notions, it does make the entire plot quite fascinating, as the commentary between Susan’s perception of Edward’s story, and how it speaks to her thoughts on how Edward might perceive himself through Tony, it what makes the film a cut above just being a well-made survival thriller.  Given how riveting these scenes are, at least in Susan’s mind, one wonders why it took so long for Edward to find success as a writer; he seems a natural at crafting tight suspense.

While understanding those psychological connections aren’t completely necessary in enjoying many aspects of Nocturnal Animals, how much meaning you glean from them will largely determine your overall impression of Ford’s film in quality, though some of the more obvious tells strewn about the story may make it feel a bit obvious for those that catch on to these themes earlier than the provocative story finally reveals.

Qwipster’s rating: A-

MPAA Rated: R for violence, menace, graphic nudity, and language
Running Time: 116 min.

Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman
Small role: Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Jena Malone
Director: Tom Ford
Screenplay: Tom Ford (based on the novel, “Tony and Susan”, by Austin Wright)