Review: Nocturnal Animals

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Directed by: Tom Ford
Written by: Tom Ford, based on the book by Austin Wright
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson

Summary: A successful art dealer in Los Angeles reads her ex-husband’s manuscript which he has dedicated to her. As she reads the disturbing story she reflects on their previous relationship, its downfall and how it is represented in his latest work.

Nocturnal Animals was my favorite movie of 2016. I was super disappointed to see that it didn’t get the Oscar attention it deserved because, this movie is very well done. Most of the film is Amy Adams (Susan) reading a book. Sounds dull, right? It’s riveting.

Nocturnal Animals has a very strong screenplay. The film weaves between three storylines: Susan’s current life in Los Angeles where she is reading the manuscript that her husband sent her, Susan’s memories of the past when she first started seeing Edward and how their marriage fell apart, and the story being told in the manuscript Susan is reading. The manuscript is a violent story involving a family that is clearly meant to mirror the life Edward could have had with Susan had they stayed together. That story is thrilling in its own right, but attempting to understand the story within the context of Susan breaking Edward’s heart adds another layer of complexity that I appreciated.

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The performances from the entire cast are impressive. Nocturnal Animals has a large array of uber-talented actors even in its smallest roles. Laura Linney, Andrea Risborough, and Michael Sheen all appear on screen for no more than one scene but do a great job, particularly Laura Linney as Susan’s mother. When Susan is first introduced to us in the film I thought Amy Adams was a bit of a bizarre choice for that role. Susan is clearly supposed to be cold and severe and Amy Adams’ round face and doe-like eyes seem a little out of place. However, as we dig into Susan’s past, it makes perfect sense – she was not always the intense, unforgiving person she has become. When she first met Edward she was much warmer and more hopeful. Since the end of their marriage and the rise of her art career that appears to have faded away.

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Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance(s) seem to be completely overlooked and he does a great job. He plays both the real-life Edward in Susan’s memories and the main character of the novel (Tony). His role was perfectly cast. The story in the manuscript explores the idea of masculinity and what it means to be the patriarch (or failed patriarch?) of your family – Jake Gyllenhaal gives off this overwhelming sense of vulnerability and sensitivity on screen that plays into that in a very effective way.

However, my two favorite performances of Nocturnal Animals came from Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ray Marcus) and Michael Shannon (Bobby Andes). This is the first I’ve seen Aaron Taylor-Johnson on screen; he plays the deranged instigator of chaos and violence toward Tony and his family and he was frighteningly good at it. Michael Shannon can really do no wrong. He plays this intense detective with a nice air of aloof-ness that borders on comedy one second and in the next second he becomes a truly frightening man hellbent on seeing justice served. Nocturnal Animals was at its most thrilling when both men shared the screen – these were very strong supporting performances.

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Technically, Nocturnal Animals was very impressive. The editing and cinematography were great but I think the star of the film might have been the production design and art direction. The spaces occupied in this film played a large role in setting the tone for the story. Tom Ford is a fashion designer, so its no surprise that Nocturnal Animals would have a very distinct look. However, it’s clearly not style for style’s sake, it’s style with intention; a look that serves the message and tone of the film. Susan’s home and art gallery are full of stark, contrasting colors and sharp angles. On the completely other end of the spectrum, the story taking place in rural Texas is warm and dry, everything is sort of bathed in this orange-red-tan color of the dessert, including the costumes and sets. This made for a very abrupt transition between the scenes of Susan’s real life and the scenes taking place within the story that she is reading. The film is constantly jumping between this metropolitan-chic look that is cold and sterile to a country western.

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I found that I appreciated the detail in the production design even more upon a second viewing. There are a few scenes that borrow set pieces from Susan and Edward’s real life story and weave them into the fictional tale Edward is telling and Susan is imagining. This isn’t just an ‘easter egg’ – the appearance of these set pieces at pivotal points in the film speak directly to the relationship between the story that Edward has written and the grievances he feels with the way their relationship ended. The inciting incident of the manuscript comes when Ray and Tony are involved in a traffic incident on a rural Texas highway. This is a crucial point in the story that Edward has written. In a later scene when Susan is reflecting on the moment when she tells Edward their relationship is over, we see that same car parked in the background of the scene. This happens again with  red couch – in a memory where Edward clearly feels betrayed by Susan’s criticism of his work and career trajectory, she is sitting on a very distinctive bright red couch. This couch is shown earlier in the story Edward has written at a pivotal moment for Tony.

Final Verdict: A+
I really enjoyed everything about Nocturnal Animals. I was impressed by its technical mastery, superb performances from everyone on screen, and riveting screenplay – but most of all I was entertained. Tom Ford balanced artistic filmmaking with entertainment and never managed to underestimate his audience’s ability to come to their own conclusions. There are clear lines being drawn between Edward and Susan’s relationship and the story he has dedicated to her but Nocturnal Animals doesn’t insult the audience by spoon-feeding those connections. The information is on the screen for the viewer to take in and analyze on their own. I absolutely love that approach to filmmaking.


Oscar Consideration

Nominated for…
Best Supporting Actor, Michael Shannon

Needless to say, I am NOT pleased with the lack of Oscar nominations for this. I’m not entirely surprised, Nocturnal Animals was a bit risky and somewhat divisive – the Academy doesn’t always respond well to that. I definitely disagree and so does BAFTA. Nocturnal Animals was nominated for all of the same BAFTA categories that I would have expected it to be nominated for in the Oscars.

Here’s what Nocturnal Animals should have been nominated for:

  • Best Actor – Jake Gyllenhaal
  • Best Director, Tom Ford
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (how in the HELL did Hidden Figures and Lion get nominated in this category over Nocturnal Animals?)
  • Best Editing – To be fair, this category is exceptionally tight this year, I can’t easily name a film that should be kicked off of the ballot and replaced with Nocturnal Animals
  • Best Production Design

That being said, I’m thrilled that Michael Shannon is nominated. He won’t win, but any time we get closer to giving that man an Oscar, I’m happy. He’s remarkable.

Won…
n/a

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