Review by James Murphy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Isla Fisher, Michael Shannon, Michael Sheen, Armie Hammer, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Director: Tom Ford
Based on the novel ‘Tony and Susan’, by Austin Wright
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Run Time: 2 hrs approx.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) has it all: successful Art Gallery, marketing savvy, a house with the perfect Kitchen and view. But her husband (Armie Hammer) is cheating and their finances are not all they seem. Then, one day, from nowhere, Susan’s first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her a copy of his new novel. She begins reading and all seems well, but the content of the book is disturbing and thereby catalyses some painful memories and home truths. It’s not so much art imitating life as art infiltrating life. Some memories are better not revisited and some books should remain closed..
Nocturnal Animals is a difficult viewing experience and by extension a challenging film to review. By turns beautiful, thrilling, unsettling, hypnotic and then deeply flawed and remote; there is a touch of genius to Tom Ford’s direction.
The premise is a new spin on the old ‘play within a play’. Writer gives proof copy of new novel to old muse. She reads it. Film dramatizes both the book’s events and the consequences of its being read and reflected on in the writer /reader’s realities.
And so, we are treated to an elegant fusion of complexity to simplicity, energetic originality meeting already tired tropes. Consequently, the bits that work here work so well that the film is a must see for any true student or passionate devotee of the cinematic craft.
At the same time: prepare to feel repelled, frustrated, deceived. Taken together, whatever one’s final view of the film, there is no doubt that it is a work of great merit across its crafts and it most certainly provokes both thought and conversation about aesthetics and morality.
This is film-making at its most philosophical, without ever truly sinking into the kind of moral pretension and faux intellectual ambitions of many safer blockbuster counterparts. On one hand, watching Nocturnal Animals makes one long for the security of a super-hero film. Equally you will feel an enormous release at being allowed, for once, to experience a genuine thriller that dares to confront the evil, weakness and disillusionment of adulthood.
Bizarrely, your Batman/Iron-Man and assorted other franchise super hero products feature complex speeches and an increasingly verbose register of quasi-political lectures, in place of genuine plot or characterization. Nocturnal Animals has none of that yet manages, through visual short-hands (that would be at home on the art wall or comic book panel), to convey deeply challenging moral motifs and pulp thrills.
Director Tom Ford is treating us here to visual story telling at its finest. Film is not supposed to be a wordy medium. The real trick is in being able to convey plot points and character arcs through editing, first rate musical score and imagery, whilst allowing for a literary dimension in script. By that rationale, Nocturnal Animals is a definitive ‘how to’ movie. It will be used in film schools for years to come, exhibiting the finest craftsmanship in every department.
The film is also an abject lesson in what NOT to do. The fusion of the book within book / film within film format to meditation on failed romance and the passage of time is mishandled here. The ‘real world’ characters are unsympathetic and lacking in substance. The difficulties they face in their sheltered, moneyed lives are nothing ‘new’ and fail to engage a viewer emotionally.
I do care about the characters in the ‘book’: wherein a husband and wife and daughter are carjacked. I give not one ounce of care for the superficial Susan, Tony and Hutton whose lives are playing outside the book world. That’s a big problem for a film that presumes and demands our equal investment in both worlds.
There was a simple and gripping thriller in here and it could and should have been the main / sole focus, perhaps leaving the other threads to some sort of shared universe spin off (kind of like..well..how they now structure super-hero franchises!). If you are viewing the film based on the trailer, be warned: you were deceived, because this is not a simple mystery pot boiler.
Visually and stylistically, though stunning, things are..well…awkward, to say the least. There is a LOT of David Lynch here, with a fixation apropos nothing, on rotund nudity, draped in red. That does not make for comfortable viewing and is gratuitous and repellent, unjustified by connection to plot or character.
Some clichés are retained, both visually and thematically (the rich persons’ boring dinner party; the deserted Deliverance style geography and cavemen criminals), whilst more challenging questions and possible twists are left under-cooked. The ending is bathetic.
There is an awkward fetishizing of money and fashion, too. Are we supposed to embrace the superficiality (Kitchens, Baths, Art Galleries) and enjoy the vicarious simulation? Or is this an attempt to somehow moralise and warn against the dangers of materialism? We are never sure and there is a part of me that wonders whether Tom Ford, as Director, was entirely certain himself.
The male form here is glorified, too. LOTS of shots of Jake Gyllenhaal’s worked out, ‘toight’ body. That’s fine, except as I stated earlier, this is not an action film and Jake is not playing a super hero. And we should get similar exposure to Amy Adams if all things are equal, right? We don’t. Luckily she is just as delightful and exquisite and hypnotic in close up as long shot, with or without make-up. Amy reveals more when clothed than Jake does in the ‘buff’. Still feel cheated, though 😉
Ambiguity is one thing; tonal blur is something else. One can of course, shuffle genres and motifs within a dramatic experiment. But an audience NEEDS to KNOW that, in advance. One can provide twists in plot and character galore; changing the actual pace / feel / moral core is a recipe for alienation rather than stimulation of the audience.
What saves the product as a whole is the flawless acting from all involved. Michael Shannon gives an Oscar worthy turn as a Cop /Mentor with nothing to lose. Shannon is the guy you may remember as ‘Zod’ from that super-hero film, Man of Steel. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a perfect personification of evil, un-recognisable from his other guises in..you guessed it..super-hero / blockbuster genre pictures. He is free from all vanity here (toilet scene: blimey).
And Gyllenhaal? Well this is his film. Though it remains an ensemble piece, he owns every scene where he is the focus. Little facial gestures and movements of body; physical transformations and a seamless transition between playing the author of the novel and its own fictional lead character. Vulnerability, wounded masculinity, sensitivity, youthful idealism, sinister sexuality and moral ambiguity: he captures everything, perfectly. If ever there were a film designed as an actor’s career changing show reel: this is it. Give him a..yes..super-hero franchise? Now. He was nearly Spider-Man and Batman, so give the poor man a break. Failing that, he’s a character actor and one of the greats, ready to make more movies like this (ie good, substantial and designed for grown ups).
Nocturnal Animals is a must see for any true student or fanatic of the cinematic arts and crafts. It is also a necessary watch for writers: jolting you from procrastination or watering down of that novel /script. The moral is that one must quite literally ‘slaughter darlings’ on a page to gain true closure in reality and that even the most violent of scenario devised in fiction is ironically less traumatic than facing the passage of time within the dull domesticity of a real world counterpart. In other words: ‘move on’ and never revisit an old love.
This is certainly not a film for the casual viewer or a relaxing night out at the movies. But it is a work of genius and must be lauded for all its strengths in visual story-telling, literary /philosophical ambition and absolute perfection in performances.
4/5. Grade A-