Amy Adams is Susan Morrow, an art gallery director living in Los Angeles in Nocturnal Animals. She is living a life many people think they aspire to with multiple penthouse apartments in multiple cities, a husband with a good career of his own and fashion model looks, admiration from the masses, but she feels empty and knows much of the image she projects is a sham. One day she gets a package in the mail, and in this package is a book manuscript from her ex-husband (Edward Sheffield played by Jake Gyllenhall) of 20 years earlier with a note asking her to read it and asking for her opinion. Intrigued and nostalgic for her old life, she does so, and this story within a story along with the way she reacts to it is the crux of Nocturnal Animals.
Nocturnal Animals is a well crafted film. The book within the movie is the more archetypal story with a narrative that builds and crescendos using the classical elements of drama, but Susan’s story as she reads the manuscript and interacts with her world is what gives the movie its real weight and meaning. One piece of the film could not exist without the other even though they appear on the surface to be separate stories. Part of me wonders if this is as much a crutch as a device since neither story really has a lot to offer on its own, it is at least a well concealed and used crutch.
The best part of Nocturnal Animals is most certainly the performances from its excellent cast of actors. Amy Adams shows time and time again in everything she touches that she is truly a jewel in Hollywood’s crown and unarguably one of the greatest actors working today. Jake Gyllenhall has to play double duty in two different roles in Nocturnal Animals, and one of those two is the largest role in the film, but Amy Adams gets top billing here despite that not just because she gives the best performance but because without her very sensitive and profound interpretation of the character of Susan this film would most likely fail. Every performance on display is remarkable, and it is obvious that Ford is truly an “actors’ director”, but Amy Adams stands out even amongst the other great work on display.
The visuals, and in particular the art direction, in Nocturnal Animals is sumptuous, and the one thing that rivals the acting for quality. The movie takes place in two very different worlds, those being the wealthiest playgrounds of the Los Angeles elite power players and the poorest most remote areas of West Texas. From the most lush of penthouses to the trashiest of trailers no detail was left untouched and the framing of each shot was also obviously thought through to most take advantage of the environment. The director, Tom Ford, is known as much or more as a fashion designer as he is a film director, and his eye for detail is most certainly a heavy influence on his directorial style which very much shows in every visual element of Nocturnal Animals.
The success of Nocturnal Animals ultimately, though, falls on the weight of its themes. It’s what this movie is all about as it makes so apparent, and in that area I cannot give better than a very mixed review. Nocturnal Animals is through and through a revenge story, and while I can’t give any details about that revenge without spoiling a great deal, the ultimate message seems to be that all of us out there, no matter how well meaning, are rotten to the core and our rottenness spreads and infects even the most innocent and well intentioned eventually. This message is wielded like a sledge hammer throughout the film, and particularly in its ending. It’s a message that even though obvious is well stated, but ultimately, why is it a message worth stating? First off, even if true, it’s something a great many already feel and don’t need to be told, but more importantly, the film gives no solution or advice, just condemnation and anger. It’s ultimately a nihilistic, pessimistic piece of work. It can be used as a form of catharsis for those, which would be nearly all of us, who felt they have been wronged by someone in their past but in a film as dark as this one I prefer at least an offer of some sort of solution or a story told in a way that makes us come to surprise revelations about our own nature rather than one that wields negative emotion as a broad sweeping cudgel.
There is a lot to like about Nocturnal Animals, the wonderful performances most of all, but its lovingly detailed visuals and its intricacies of the story are also quite the pleasure to mull over, and almost demand this be a film you view more than once to take everything in. However, your enjoyment will hinge on whether you can take the themes which are not just dark but downright mean and angry, but nevertheless the most integral part of understanding the story. I recommend Nocturnal Animals to those who are Oscar junkies, as you will be seeing this movie mentioned in the nominations, and to those who need to vent pent up anger at someone who betrayed you in the past, but if you are a well adjusted casual movie goer, it’s a little harder to determine if this is one you should see. I guess all I can say is if you find yourself drawn to story within a story plots and don’t worry too much about the positivity nor practicality of a movie’s message, then Nocturnal Animals is a movie for you, otherwise this is one to take in at your own risk.
Rating: 7.2 out of 10