Sometimes, a film takes your mind in so many different directions that even Robert Frost wouldn’t know which path to follow. For me, Nocturnal Animals was one of those films. This is director Tom Ford’s second film, after 2009’s A Single Man. I never saw that one, but Nocturnal Animals makes me think that he’s heavily influenced by David Lynch and/or Darren Aronofsky. The film isn’t quite as abstract as a Lynch story nor quite as aggressive as Aronofsky. But it’s a raw, unyielding story (within a story) that requires the audience to participate, rather than be content as an omniscient observer.
Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, the owner of an art gallery who receives a manuscript of an upcoming novel through the mail from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). As she reads the story, she comes to certain realizations about herself, her past, and possibly her future. The film follows both Susan’s “real-life” story and the story written by Edward (where Gyllenhaal also plays the main character, Tony).
Immediately, the film opens in the most surprising, disorienting way that I can recall. That was when I thought of David Lynch, but the film does settle in, once the opening credits have concluded. Like everything in the film, though, that opening sequence has meaning. The whole movie is full of metaphors and hidden symbolism and the audience is expected to look for those aspects, process them, and then apply them to the film. It’s a lot like a math problem; if someone just gives you the answer, then you know it, but the feeling of satisfaction that comes with finding it on your own sadly escapes.
And there truly is a lot to find within Nocturnal Animals. I won’t go into details, but the parallels between the fictional story written by Edward and the actual story of Susan’s life are the backbone of the film. I have my own solid interpretation of the film but I would like to see it again, in order to pay closer attention to details that I didn’t think to look closely at, the first time around, or to be ready for things that I didn’t know were coming. Because it all matters. Every line, every action, every look, every decoration, every piece of art . . . all of it matters. I want to leave no clue overlooked and no stone unturned, as people say.
Also important to note is how both Susan and Edward earn their livings from art, but in two very different ways. Susan, as the owner of an art gallery, is constantly immersed in high-brow society, discussing pretentious works that represent what the artist aspires to be, rather than what they actually are. Edward crafts a story so dark and disturbing that most people would be afraid to confront that aspect of themselves. And, yes, unlike the art that Susan sees, every day, Edward’s art represents what he is, not what he wishes to be. At one point in their marriage, Susan gives Edward the constructive criticism to write about himself. Now that he has, Susan is deeply affected.
I seem to be saying this a lot, recently, but the cast deserves special mention. Amy Adams is – as always – astounding. She’s subtle, but heartfelt, turning her emotions on and off, circumspect to her current environment. She is extremely emotionally guarded, as Susan has been raised to believe that emotions are tantamount to weakness. Adams has had a great year and her roll continues, here. Isla Fisher plays Susan’s surrogate in Edward’s manuscript. She’s fantastic and I would just like to applaud Ford for finally acknowledging what we film lovers have been talking about for years – that Adams and Fisher are practically twins. Thank you!
Gyllenhaal pours himself into his dual roles, as he does every role he ever assumes. He’s an astounding talent that has mastered the art of nuance. In both of his characters, you get a sense that there’s something he isn’t saying. He bottles his own feelings up, much like Susan, but not for the same reasons. He’s afraid of himself. Or, more accurately, he’s afraid of what his feelings may do to the ones he cares about. So, he does nothing. Until he writes his book.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson completely transforms himself into the most vile, repulsive character I’ve seen in a film in quite some time. And that transformation is complete. I knew he was in the film ahead of time and I still didn’t realize he was playing Ray. Taylor-Johnson is probably underappreciated by audiences but thankfully not by the industry as he’s been getting good work and will next be seen in 2017’s The Wall.
Nocturnal Animals is not for those who want everything handed to them. It’s not for those who want to turn their brains off for a couple of hours. It’s not for those who don’t like to think. And it’s not for those with an underdeveloped, reactionary mindset. There is a palpable build throughout the entire film. The pressure mounts for nearly two hours, as the viewer just waits for an imminent explosion. But that release is never provided. It’s a bold approach in today’s world of instant gratification. It’s also honest and true to the nature of Susan’s story. The guy behind me was absolutely outraged when the final credits rolled. I was not. “Okay, let me process this.” That’s what went through my mind.
And process, I did. I walked around for about 30 minutes and I thought about it. I had an hour-long drive home, on which I thought about it. I sat down to write this and I continued to think about it. And I’m going to keep thinking about it when I’m done writing. This is the epitome of a thinking person’s film. It’s everything that my least favorite movie of the year (to put it nicely) wants everyone to believe it is. That movie put the filmmaker before the film. Not so, with Nocturnal Animals. Nocturnal Animals is mind-bending, mysterious, unsettling, brilliant, sophisticated, innovative, layered, haunting, and absolutely unforgettable.
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