NOCTURNAL ANIMALS ½
2016, R, 117 mins.
Amy Adams as Susan Morrow / Armie Hammer as Hutton Morrow / Jake Gyllenhaal as Tony Hastings / Ellie Bamber as Helen Hastings / Isla Fisher as Laura Hastings / Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ray Marcus / Michael Shannon as Bobby Andes / Karl Glusman as Lou
Written and directed by Tom Ford / Based on the novel by "Tony and Susan" by Austin Wright
Half of Tom
Ford's NOCTURNAL ANIMALS works masterfully well.
half...simply does not.
That's not to say that the fashion designer turned film director is not talented. If anything, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS more than establishes Ford as a consummate cinematic visualist with a highly unique eye. His latest film - the first since his critically lauded A SINGLE MAN - shows his complete command of art direction, production design, costumes, and framing shots with sumptuously gorgeous imagery. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS has an evocative texture and style that is wholly its own, which helps it stand far apart from other psychological thrillers.
Even though this
is a film of unimpeachable craft, its main failing is its narrative
structure, which is essentially two films for the price of one (or perhaps
maybe three films?), one of which is a mini film within the larger film
that's adapting a faux novel, which is read by one of the main characters.
This literary adaptation story thread is sensationally realized and
pulsates throughout with undulating menace and suspense.
The "real world" of the film apart from it is
substantially less enthralling, which leaves NOCTURNAL ANIMALS feeling
Based on the
apparently unfilmable 1993 novel TONY AND SUSAN by Austin Wright (unread
by me), NOCTURNAL ANIMALS initially introduces us to a wealthy and
prosperous L.A. art gallery owner named Susan (Amy Adams), who's a recent
divorcee that's now struggling with a new loveless marriage to a very
unfaithful businessman (Armie Hammer).
Her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), was a struggling
novelist desperately trying to find his creative voice, and his lack of
success was just one of many reasons that caused his split from Susan. She's surprised one day to receive a package from him, which
features a completed manuscript of a novel that he has just penned called
"Nocturnal Animals". Now,
what peaks her interest is the fact that he cites her as an influence in
the novel's completion (that, and its first page dedicates itself to her). Not only that, but the
title of the book is an old nickname Edward had for Susan.
Intrigued, she picks it up and starts reading it.
The film then
segues into a whole other story...the story of the novel that's presented
in multiple vignettes as the film as a whole progresses.
In the book's story we meet Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), who's
making a long nocturnal drive with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their
teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) through West Texas.
Their relatively peaceful trip immediately takes a turn for the
worse when they're run off the road by a trio of red necked troublemakers,
lead by Ray (an unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson), whom especially
takes umbrage with the manner that Tony's daughter gave him and his
posse a middle finger salute while he reckless drove behind them, which
contributed to his road rage. Things
go south really fast when Ray and his goons forcibly separate the already
panic stricken Tony from
his family...and his situation turns tragic by the following morning.
ANIMALS then frequently skips back and forth - sometimes artfully and
fluidly, other times sloppily - between
the world of Edward's novel and Susan reading it.
The film becomes even more convoluted by the fact that it also
throws in a tertiary plot involving flashbacks to how Susan and Edward met
and how they eventually went their separate ways.
Herein lies, again, the big problem with NOCTURNAL ANIMALS - the
storylines of the real world are in no way shape or form as hypnotically
compelling as anything that's presented in the mini adaptation of Edward's
novel. The jumbled up nature of the flashbacks - which are not
altogether necessary in the large scheme of things - never really makes a
bold case for their existence. Ultimately,
I was more transfixed with Tony's whole ordeal and what he was going
through than I ever was with Susan and her adulterous new husband. More often than not, Ford seems to be grasping for a cohesive
manner at homogenizing the film's multiple narratives in some sort of
meaningful way, but he regrettably falls short.
All in all, I was left puzzled by what connective dots he was trying
to make about Susan's and Tony's life.
story is a commentary on the nature of the steps a meek mannered and
emasculated man will take to ensure that justice is done when the justice
system fails. The opening
sequence of this film within the film packs a gut wrenchingly horrific
punch as we see Tony try as he can to fend himself and his family off from
a gang of amoral hillbillies; it's more genuinely terrifying than
any scene from any recent horror film that I've seen as of late.
It's here where Ford proudly shows himself off as a filmmaker with
a Hitchcockian sense of creating a palpable evocation of dread in the
simplest of moments. Tony is
befriended on his quest for seeking vengeance on Ray and his cohorts by
Detective Bobby Andes (a coolly effective Michael Shannon), that has his
own deeply personal reasons why he wants to see these men burn as
quickly as possible. Shannon
might be our most underrated actor working today, seeing as he's such a
chameleon in his roles that can command our attention with body language
and his penetratingly intense stare.
He's astoundingly assured as his cigarette smoking Texas lawman
with a morbid tongue and thirst for comeuppance; every time he's on screen
you're thoroughly absorbed and immersed.
- also a performer that hasn't received as much awards recognition as
he deserves - has the trickiest arc in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, seeing as he has
to play two different roles, albeit one being far more memorable and
noteworthy. He has to play
Tony as a man of near paralyzing weakness that has to rise to the occasion
to assert himself to confront those that have wronged him face to face;
he's more than adept enough to make this transformation seem credible. One of the real performance standouts for me is Aaron Taylor-Johnson's career re-defining turn as the sociopathic Ray, and very few
films on his past resume have tapped into the type of perversely hostile eeriness that he exudes here. Very
rarely has a plain spoken country bumpkin been as wholly terrifying as Ray
is, and Taylor-Johnson helps to cement himself going forward as a breakout
actor to watch out for.
shouldn't forget about Amy Adams either, seeing as she's good at
evoking her character's melancholic regrets, but she's unfortunately
saddled with the most disinteresting scenes in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. I found her story and her history with Edward to be
dramatically cold and distancing; I simply didn't care about these people,
where they came from, and what's happening to them now.
Susan's lushly affluent and sheltered lifestyle and her unlucky streak
with equally rich men hardly holds a dramatic candle to the hellish
arc that Tony finds himself in during the film within a film. Many scenes involving Susan and her daily life are weirdly
cobbled together; some seem to be going for industry satire at the
pretentiousness of the modern conceptual art scene, whereas others seem
outrageously broad and odd in a purely David Lynchian fashion that
seemingly add nothing to the interrelated fabric of the narrative (a brief
moment between Adams and Jena Malone, for example, is emblematic of
this). The film builds all of
its multiple coalescing plot threads towards a conclusion and final scene
that's frustratingly vague and leaves many questions left unanswered.
I applaud ambiguous movie endings that don't lay all the cards out on
the table, but this one seems to have completely forgotten to take its
cards out of its box.
I was disappointed with NOCTURNAL ANIMALS...not because it's a bad film, mind you. It has a limitless ambition from a conceptual standpoint and Ford - working in tandem with nomination worthy work from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and composer Abel Korzeniowski (his work richly echoes the finest chords of a Bernard Hermann) - creates a film that's completely enveloping on a level of sights and sounds (granted, an opening title card sequence, as artfully as it's rendered, is clearly going for self indulgently sensationalistic shock value). There's so much to take in and admire here, and I definitely want to see more from Ford going forward. Alas, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS wages a war with itself from within. 50 per cent of it is shockingly effective cinema, which leaves me giving it a very fair two and a half star rating. The entire film could have and should have been about that 50 per cent.
Now that would have been something.