REVIEW: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Theatrical Release Poster - Focus Features
Theatrical Release Poster – Focus Features

The following is a review of Nocturnal Animals – Directed by Tom Ford.

In Nocturnal Animals, Susan Morrow (played by Amy Adams), a gallery owner, receives the manuscript for a novel by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). She is now married to Hutton Morrow (played by Armie Hammer) and she’s losing touch with her husband, who is actively cheating on her. Susan is surprised to learn that Edward has dedicated the novel to her, and even more disturbed, but intrigued, by the story which takes place in West Texas and is a very violent revenge story.

It probably tells you a lot about me that the first time I heard about Tom Ford was when I heard about his feature film debut, A Single Man. While that is what I knew him for, he will probably always be a fashion designer, fashion genius, fashion icon, and filmmaker in that order. Fashion designer first, and a filmmaker second.

I thought Tom Ford’s feature film debut was really strong. But whereas A Single Man was more impressive and gorgeous, I do think that Nocturnal Animals is a more enthralling film for the general moviegoing audience, even if it does have it’s own odd issues and hit-or-miss sequences.

In fact, the opening sequence of Tom Ford’s sophomore feature film is hit-or-miss. I think it goes on for way too long, and it could’ve been tweaked a little bit and then worked better, but it probably would have been wise to leave it on the cutting room floor altogether. You don’t really get a clear idea of what Ford wants to show here. Is it fat-shaming? Maybe. Is the sequence meant to contrast Susan’s unhappy marriage? Perhaps, it’s not made clear.

The other extremely memorable sequence in the film, introduces Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character and is one of the most disturbing, gut-wrenching and intense sequences I’ve seen in any film from 2016. I don’t really want to discuss what happens here, seeing as it may be the one sequence that is going to shock audiences in a captivating and haunting way. I wouldn’t want this scene spoiled for me.

But let’s talk about Aaron Taylor-Johnson. I first saw him in Shanghai Knights, but first noticed him in Kick-Ass. If I’m being honest, he hasn’t been an actor that has left an impression on me in anything. Until now. As Ray Marcus he is absolutely disgusting, disturbing, and nightmarishly captivating.

He gets to act with both Michael Shannon and Jake Gyllenhaal, who both give solid performances, but Michael Shannon, like Aaron Taylor-Johnson has a tendency to steal every scene away from Gyllenhaal in Nocturnal Animals. Shannon is such a great, unpretentious but spectacular performer. He’s always good, and he always adds to the film he’s in, even if he’s just playing a supporting character.

I expected to heap praises on both Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams – two of my very favorite actors right now – but while they’re both good in the movie, they aren’t the standout performers, and I would even go as far as saying Amy Adams is underutilized in Nocturnal Animals.

But the performances absolutely are a strength of this film. As are both the musical score by Abel Korzeniowski – who also scored Tom Ford’s feature film debut – and the cinematography of this film.

I also think that Tom Ford handles the juggling act of making each of the three layers – the present, the novel, and the past – work with each other very well. I really enjoyed unwrapping the little mysteries in the film, and I do think Ford does a good job of keeping you at the edge of your seat as the film cuts from the present day to the novel and back to the past.

But the opening sequence isn’t the only thing I dislike about this movie. My biggest problem with Nocturnal Animals is that some of the symbolism feels incredibly ham-fisted. At one point in the film, Susan Morrow literally stands in front of a painting that says ‘REVENGE.’ That scene, which features Jena Malone, is probably the worst in the film, as it also includes an ill-conceived and annoying jump-scare.

This next part may be a tad too revealing for some, so if you know nothing about this movie, then jump to the last two paragraphs of this review. I’ve heard the criticism that Nocturnal Animals, the movie, is a glorification of sexist stories that only focus on violence against women from the male point of view. It’s a valid criticism of Edward’s book, but I don’t think it’s a valid criticism of the movie, per se.

Do we know how good his novel is? We definitely don’t. We see what Susan imagines, and if she says it’s powerful then, one might say, that it could say more about her than the quality of the novel. While there are some great scenes ‘from the novel,’ that doesn’t necessarily mean the novel is as unique or great as Susan implies that it is. I see Susan Morrow as a potentially unreliable interpreter.

While one might say that the novel’s plot is more eventful than Susan’s real present day life, I think that the complex story works well as a whole. The movie sees Susan interpret one potential future for herself, but – much like most audience interpretations – her interpretation may lie far from the intention of the author.

Which brings us to the cynical and, somewhat, nihilistic ending, which I won’t spoil, but I will briefly mention. I do think it works, and I like that complex stories and films ask audiences to think about what they’ve just watched. It may be a jarring and unfulfilling ending for some, but, for others, this surprisingly polarizing film will stick the landing.

All things considered, while Nocturnal Animals may not be as impressive and well-received as Tom Ford’s feature film debut, I do think Tom Ford’s sophomore feature film is a captivating and disturbing story of revenge and lost love that reminds you of stories that have been told by Nic Pizzolatto, Denis Villeneuve, and David Fincher. It may not be as well-received or talked about as Prisoners or Gone Girl, but I do think it is a movie you need to watch.

9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex

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