A film review by Craig J. Koban December 17, 2016

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS jj
 

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.   

Its other 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 disjointed. 

 

 

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. 

NOCTURNAL 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.

His 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.

Gyllenhaal - 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.

I 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. 

 

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