Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
When the film started and I was greeted by large, old, naked women
dancing flopping around, I was perturbed that Netflix had sent me the wrong film. As the title, Nocturnal Animals, floated across the screen, I knew that Netflix had not sent me the wrong film, but I was in for something interesting. The best word I could use to describe this film is, “uncomfortable.” Like a sneeze, Nocturnal Animals is a two hour ride on the fine line between art and pretentiousness that builds to a satisfying release from all those uncomfortable moments sprinkled throughout.
Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, a wealthy woman who owns an art gallery (it’s revealed that the women in the title sequence are part of an art exhibit), she’s now married to Armie Hammer’s Hutton Morrow, a business man who is obviously having an affair before they show it on screen. The morning after Susan’s big art gallery opening she receives a copy of a book written by her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). After some nonsense involving a party and a scene that shows Susan’s husband is having an affair, the film dives into the part of the story that is actually interesting: Edward’s novel. It’s at this point in the story, when the film diverges into three separate stories. The first is Susan reacting to the contents of the novel, which involves several scenes of her starring off into the distance and rubbing her eyes, or dropping things because she is startled. The second is Edward’s novel, which tells the story of a man seeking revenge on those who murdered his wife and daughter. The third portion of the story consists of flashbacks that gives insight into the relationship between Edward and Susan. These three narratives work together to make two-thirds of a great film.
Everything about the portion of the film with Amy Adams reading reeks of pretentiousness. Her character is pretentious, and the acting is so ridiculous that it often times took me out of the film. A majority of these moments involve her starring off into the distance and rubbing her eyes because she’s emotionally disturbed by what Edward wrote in his book. There are scenes with her standing in the shower thinking about it. There’s another scene with her in the bath thinking about it. Nothing happens in these scenes, except her thinking about the novel. There’s a few scenes with her at her job when she has conversations with people, but all of these are just bloated nonsense compared to the rest of the film. At one point Susan explains to a coworker where Nocturnal Animals came from, which is about the only productive thing that came from these scenes. Susan is frequently asked by the people around her whether or not she’d been sleeping. It happens enough to draw attention to it and make you think that something will come from it, but nothing does.
The flashback scenes are meant to establish what Susan was like when she was with Edward. Seeing Susan with Edward shows a huge contrast with the woman she has become. While nothing impressive happens with the flashback scenes, they still add depth to the characters, and are more interesting to watch than Amy Adam’s starring at fireplace logs. When we meet young Susan for the first time, she seems optimistic and hopeful, like someone who doesn’t care if art will pay the bills or not. This leads to her marrying Edward, but when she meets the successful Hutton Morrow in one of her classes, this changes how she sees Edward. There aren’t enough scenes to show any sort of gradual change in her character, which makes her leaving Edward and their arguments all the more startling when they happen.
Edward’s novel makes up the best part of the film. It’s an exciting story that would make it a good film on its own. The novel tells the story of Tony Hastings (another role by Jake Gyllenhaal), Laura Hastings (Isla Fisher), and India Hastings (Ellie Bamber), a family who is going on vacation in west Texas. While traveling at night, the family is driven off the road by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his goons. Its the opening scene of this portion of the film that makes the film uncomfortable to watched. Taking a page out of Quentin Tarantino’s book, Tom Ford stretches and stretches the tension until you’re begging for something to happen to release it. It might be one of the best examples of tension on film since the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds. I won’t spoil anything, but it’s worth watching this film just for this scene and for this story. Jake Gyllenhaal delivers another perfect performance as Tony Hastings, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson continues to show how far he’s come since the early days of his career.
As I mentioned above, there are plenty of clever bits sprinkled throughout the film. A lot of it is related to real world people and places and how Edward incorporates them into his book. When Susan leaves Edward, he is standing next to the same car he gives Ray Marcus in his novel. The family’s name is Hastings, and Edward had plans to be involved with Hastings College. There are some other clever bits that are a bit more overt, like Laura Hastings looking oddly similar to Susan. The film never explicitly states how each part of the novel is a metaphor for real life events between Edward and Susan, but it is obvious from the way Susan reacts to the novel (and Edward’s note to her) that there is a message written between the lines that only she will understand.
This was by no means a perfect film. There were plenty of instances where the film was too caught up in the medium by incorporating shots that looked interesting, but failed to propel the story forward. Some of the dialogue was too bulking and blocked the flow of the what was happening. During the opening scene with Susan and Hutton in their kitchen, Susan spews out enough exposition to bring the film to a screeching halt. I think she goes to a party after that, but I was still trying to digest all of the information from the previous scene to notice or care. While the three stories the film ties together could work independently of each other, it is only when they are brought together that they make for a decent film. The flashbacks provide context for both the novel and the present day scenes, and the present day scenes and the flashbacks enable the audience to interpret what Edward is trying to say with his novel. It’s a film that might require multiple viewings in order to digest everything and figure out which parts are significant and which parts are not. Amy Adams proves once again why she deserves to be recognized for her talents, and Jake Gyllenhaal also proves why he is one of the great actors of our time. Overall, I throughly enjoyed this film despite its flaws.