From the moment it begins, you can tell from the music that Nocturnal Animals is going to be an elegant film. Opening at an art exhibition featuring several plus sized ladies dancing in the nude, the film follows the artist and curator behind this performance, Susan, played by Amy Adams. Feeling discontent in her lavish lifestyle, Susan receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), titled Nocturnal Animals. Reading through the story within, Susan finds a tale of heartbreak and despair; the story of Tony (also Gyllenhaal) whose wife and daughter are abducted, raped and murdered, and as a result, with the help of weary policeman Bobby (Michael Shannon), Tony sets out for justice.
The story within the story is raw, brutal and utterly captivating. Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor Johnson are both magnetic in their roles, giving stand-out performances and going above and beyond the rest of the pretty stellar cast. Who would have thought Johnson could be such a despicable villain? Yet he pulls it off in such a way that you would think he had been playing these sorts of roles all his life.
Watching these actors work their craft, all the while being dazzled by the camerawork, the beautiful settings and the sharp colour palette, makes for a great cinematic experience.
The problem is that this second narrative, contained within this in-story manuscript, is so good that is detracts from the first somewhat. While the book Nocturnal Animals is raw and vibrant, the film Nocturnal Animals is darker and more subdued, both in look and content. While Amy Adams is a gem, she isn’t given a ton to do here bar chew the scenery, reflect on what’s going on in the book, and generally act a bit melancholy.
That isn’t to say Adams is wasted in this film, because as if two narratives wasn’t enough, a third is later introduced at the 45 minute mark. This narrative follows Susan and Edward back when they first got together and the tumultuous relationship that ensues. It’s in these scenes that we see the charm of both Gyllenhaal (who also brings an impressive performance to the role of Tony) and Adams, as they truly get their chance to shine. These scenes do add to the central present day narrative, but not enough to make it the most compelling.
This dragging of the main plot; the desire to ignore it and focus on the past and the book; are perhaps one of the main things standing against the film. It’s not that it’s bad- the central plot is boosted by the same strong scripting that director Tom Ford delivers in the other two narratives; the same interesting characters and more of that beautiful aesthetic. It’s just that in comparison, it’s lacking, something that’s compounded in the ending, which, while it works in the context of the film, may leave something to be desired for some members of the audience. It’s blunt and sudden, and does not have the payoff that some may expect. A similar thing happens in the book’s narrative. Things are tied up, but left in a unsatisfying way.
However, throughout the film, Ford seeds themes about how life never turns out the way you hope when you’re younger. There are disappointments, there is sadness, and not everyone finds fulfillment. In that way, the ending is sort of genius, but people hoping to watch something that subscribes to the regular Hollywood paradigm should perhaps look elsewhere. But those looking for a challenging and thoughtful film will be in their element.
Dir: Tom Ford
Scr: Tom Ford
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, Jena Malone
Prd: Tom Ford, Robert Salerno
Music: Abel Korzeniowski
DOP: Seamus McGarvey
Runtime: 116 minutes
Nocturnal Animals is out on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital Download on March 13th.