Review: In NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, Bad Things Happen

Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal star in Tom Ford's NOCTURNAL ANIMALS.

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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Review: In NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, Bad Things Happen

For the engaged cinephile, right from the opening credit sequence of Nocturnal Animals, there will be a sense of confidence that things here are in good hands.

Hyper-glossy and daringly uncommercial in the same breath, it puts some fine Lynchian bonafides on the table early. Then the camera pulls back from this tone-setting overture to reveal that these seemingly context-free images (which will remain unspoilt by me, but might prevent the film from playing in a multiplex near you) are very much present, and in fact are part of the gala launch of a Los Angeles art gallery.

The curator and architect of the exhibit (but, tellingly, not the artist) is Susan, played by Amy Adams in heavy make-up, and chunky jewelry. The deep lighting makes her red hair stand out like smoldering coals in the dark. Forget for the moment director Tom Ford's penchant for enhancing surfaces, Adams delivers an understated inner-performance entirely with her eyes and posture. Mere seconds on screen and you can immediately deduce she is unhappy with the not only the exhibit but with her many if not most of her life choices.

Later that evening, Susan is abandoned to stew in her own juices by her husband (Armie Hammer) who is the kind of high-stakes businessman that is required for a cross-continental flight upon a moment's notice. Nocturnal Animals is a film about how we process our thoughts when alone, versus reacting in the company of others.

It is also a master-class in 'show-don't-tell' filmmaking. A brief domestic conversation, prior to her husband's exit from the film, is practical and efficient. We learn that their glass and concrete mansion and designer lifestyle is on the verge of bankruptcy, but again, the body language and framing suggest that money, in and of itself, is the least of their problems, matrimonially.

The very same evening, Susan receives a package in the mail from her previous husband, whom she has not spoken to in nearly two decades. The manuscript of his soon-to-be published novel is included with a personal note thanking her for the inspiration (and life experience) provided finally write something significant. The book shares the name of the film, but the film is adapted from Austin Wright's 1993 novel, Tony and Susan.

Tony is the name of the character in the book that Susan reads, a man whose family is threatened and jeopardized on a lonely West Texas highway by a gang of good ol' boys led by an extraordinarily effective, and completely unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who has come a distance from Kick-Ass and wins the Tom Hardy award for chameleon-like disappearance into a part.

It is exceptional that Ford has made a film about a woman who spends the bulk of the runtime sitting on her couch (or bed, or in the bath) reading a book, into one of the most compellingly 'lean-in' films of the year. Half of the runtime is devoted to the novel, which is anchored by a Zodiac or Nightcrawler calibre performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. A scene-stealing Michael Shannon appears as a cancer stricken Texas Sheriff who is funny, and yet, simultaneously scared the absolute shit out of me. The remainder of the film split equally between Susan's languorous present, and flashbacks to her optimistic courtship with her first husband and youthful writer, Edward; also played by Gyllenhaal.

The cross-cutting and transitional matching shots (note a certain red couch, for instance) provide an invigorating road-map to what the movie is actually about. The editing in this film, the fimmaking in general, is among the best films of the year. And, it is in a genre, the psychological thriller, that is so radically absent, presently, that make this is a breath - a gale? perhaps a tempest - of gloomy air.

Bad things happen in Nocturnal Animals, and stylishly so. It is a fabulously blunt instrument paradoxically, yet exquisitely, used to extract subtleties of modern (material) compromise. It is appropriate that Jena Malone and Karl Glusman, who play key characters in Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon, appear here in cameos. These films are spiritual cousins in so many ways; all postmodern, smoggy, noir and demonstrative style as substance. It is all hall of mirrors stuff, life imitating art, imitating life, imitating art. I mean this in a good way.

There is an adult thrill to observing Susan's inner-life, her dreams and regrets, unfold, and autopsied, in abstract via Edwards' writing. Again, I point out the title of the source novel, which pairs Susan with the protagonist of the book, Tony (and not her former or current husband.)

The casting of Gyllenhaal in both roles underscores things, while Isla Fisher, who plays the wife in the story, has enough of a resemblance (the hair!) to further bind the core structure of the film. Watching Adams essay the crumbling of Susan's sang froid facade is as engaging as the more visceral elements in the book she is reading. It is critical that she is both alone, and operating in hindsight. Miraculous, in fact.

The consequences of what happens in the novel, and what carries on after Susan sets things down will not be revealed here, of course, but suffice it to say that the film sticks the landing with precision and no shortage of savage grace.

Review originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2016. The film will open in select theaters in Canada and the U.S. on Friday, November 18, via Focus Features.

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Aaron Taylor-JohnsonAmy AdamsJake GyllenhaalMichael ShannonTom Ford

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More about Nocturnal Animals

  • Man Holefire

    This movie was awful. From moment one it was anti-women. Spoiler alert, in the end he doesn't meet her for dinner. Boom, finally men win. Amy Adams is great. Go out and see her in one of the many other movies that she's in that are better.

  • ManateeAdvocate

    Excellent review. This one's been on my must see list for a while now.

  • cjohnston

    Darn.
    Beat Me to it.
    ~
    ..if you've yet to check out Arrival - do so at your earliest convenience... ..it's a Dandy.
    *one of the years Best; by FAR.
    ~ ~ ~
    - I'm in Love that contemplative screen shot of Adams here..
    ---
    ...so --- Beautifully Hauntingly Goth-like..
    (haven't necessarily been interested in her work; but, divisive as it is, MofS; then Arrival; then this..... ...I'm paying (literally) WAY more attention now to her upcoming projects..)

  • ManateeAdvocate

    Oh yeah. Kurt chose an astounding shot to accompany his review. The image just levels you.

    Her stunning beauty aside, she's a beast of an actress. Even though the film kinda sorta got shat upon by some, she was excellent in American Hustle. She was great in Trouble with the Curve as well, hokey as it was. Oh my gosh, The Fighter too. Sadly, I still haven't see The Master.

    I'll be seeing Arrival ASAP. That one's a no brainer.

  • Kurt

    You want some indication of Adam's range - Well you could do the Nocturnal Animals/Arrival double bill, and that would be telling.

    But really, watch THE MUPPETS and THE MASTER back to back, oh boy, it's shocking how good Adams is as on both the fun populist level and the abstruse art-house level.

  • ManateeAdvocate

    All right. Since you're recommending me to I'll give The Muppets a go. I've been reluctant to pull the trigger on that one, but I have three kids so even if I don't care for it (doubtful) they'll likely get a kick out of it. Think I'll pick up Sunshine Cleaning while I'm at it. Thanks.

  • Kurt

    Since there are not enough 'buddy cop' movies with women (only the mediocre The Heat springs to mind), and I've always wanted a Amy Adams / Emily Blunt buddy-cop movie, SUNSHINE CLEANING is as close as we will get. (+Alan Arkin)

  • EmmJay

    Her role in The Master is kinda different from a lot of the stuff she gets to do: absolutely worth seeing.

  • cjohnston

    WORD.
    ..not sure HOW many times I've seen that one; each time I see it - I get more out of it than the previous viewing...
    A Downright GEM, that.
    (not to mention, think i'll now wear a sack over my head for the next three hour or so after spacing out about that one. DUH. ...
    GOOD CALL.)
    ---
    One of My Hands-Down, No-Brainer Favorites..
    -----
    .If You're a J. Phoenix aficionado, I'd also Heartily recommend Two Lovers, along with The Immigrant if you have yet to see (either of) them..
    -
    *much like The Master; both (are) Beautifully realized, Finely Executed, Stunningly and Admirably acted, ..with a near Herculean attention to the smallest /....and yet the biggest minutiae of details..

  • ManateeAdvocate

    Oh definitely. It looks worth seeing and I'm a fool for not seeing it sooner. I don't find PTA pretentious like so many claim. I quite like his films. Just picked up Punch Drunk Love on Criterion Blu. Thanks for the positive word.

  • cjohnston

    *I Support EmmJay and further endorse his Message/Recommendation.
    ...............and Thank Him/Her for coming in and catching that while I was too busy staring off blankly into the blinding sun..

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