Nocturnal Animals is directed by Tom Ford and stars Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Isla Fisher, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon.
Okay, this movie is fascinating, thought-provoking and will definitely stay with you for a long time after the credits have rolled, which I’m sure is exactly what auteur Tom Ford wants. Multi-layered, heavily symbolic and utlimately about a whole lot of things, this is one of those movies which draws meaning as much from the viewer as it does from what you are viewing.
When I was a kid in high school, I used to hate it when my English teachers would force us to write papers analyzing all the symbolism in famous or classic novels. After all, wasn’t the Scarlet Letter just about some perv priest who couldn’t keep his hands off the flock? Wasn’t a Tale of Two Cities just a simple story about the French Revolution? As I’ve gotten older and more experienced in living life, which doesn’t necessarily mean I’m any wiser really, I’ve come to learn that almost any story can become an allegory for our own life or our own experiences and that sometimes the best stories are not the ones that tell you something you haven’t seen or heard before, but instead force you to re-think everything you already know or have experienced, making you look at things in a whole new light. And the more personal the story can become for you and speak to you individually, the more we seem to carry it with us for the rest of our lives. I think that is what makes classics become classics.
Now I don’t know if Nocturnal Animals is set to become a cinema classic, but I do think it should be. I also don’t mean to make this movie sound like a pyschotherapy session, but in a way it certainly is for the movie’s central character, Susan Morrow, played by Amy Adams. She is an established and uppercrust artist creating repulsively strange, highly subjective pieces who is lauded by her peers but whose career is not really going anywhere in her own eyes. One day out of the blue a package arrives from her ex-husband from 19 years ago – a book he has written called Nocturnal Animals, which just happens to be the name she used to have for herself. Armie Hammer plays her now-husband, an entitled businessman who is bored with her and their life and barely disguises it. He’s barely around and Susan herself is depressed and miserable in her privileged existence so she takes the weekend and reads through the manuscript. We are treated to a movie-within-a-movie as the story in the book unfolds, Jake Gyllenhaal playing the book’s central character, Tony Hastings as well as Adam’s real-world ex-husband in a series of flashbacks showing how they met and their earlier relationship so many years before.
All of this is setup early on and I’m not going to give away any more of the plot or any spoilers. Instead, I’ll simply say that this is a movie worth seeing but it requires your committment to it. The opening credits are disturbing but like every single shot in this film, they are crafted for a specific reason. There are no wasted moments here, nothing unimportant happening on the screen. If you watch this movie carefully, your efforts will be paid off but it is difficult at times.
This is Tom Ford’s second film and frankly I’m amazed at what a good film maker he is, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. His background is in fashion design, a field which requires a skilled and artful eye to draw out emotional responses and tell stories through highly visual means. What’s more, he had early experience in film and commercials and while he studied fashion in school, he actually graduated with a degree in architecture. I only point this out because you can see all of that skillset brought to bear in not only directing this film, but also having written the screenplay from the 1993 book “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright.
The story at first is solidly based on Wright’s novel but Ford’s screenplay moves it into much deeper waters that give it nuances and layers that don’t appear at all in the source material. I think he elevated something that was thoughtful and interesting into something that has a kind of brilliance to it. Not being satisfied with having just put this into a screenplay, Ford then had to go and direct it too. And I’m glad he did becuase in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Nocturnal Animals would not be anywhere near as effective.
There are a lot of different ways that a story can be told on the big screen. Ford and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey really bring their all with a very strong execution that you frankly never really want to take your eyes away from. McGarvey is the award-winning cinematographer of such movies as The Avengers, Atonement and this year’s The Accountant and he really does great work. Ford’s background in fashion and art clearly influenced how they show Amy Adams’ art world and there is a lot of subtle behind-the-scenes work going on in the framing of the shots, makeup and clothing choices to accentuate that artificial world and differentiate it from the real world. While the movie often cuts back and forth between the present and past and the fictional account of the book Susan is reading, the transitions are crisp and sometimes done in a very clever way to enhance a single narrative which all of these time periods are combining to tell you. I was never confused about what I was watching and was very impressed with the smooth editing.
The acting is superb on everyone’s part. I have to give a shout-out to Amy Adams’ for a very subtle, almost low-key but powerful performance as a very troubled woman whose life is not at all what she had hoped it would become. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon always do great work and this is no exception, but probably the most standout performance was Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s. This is the guy who is best known for playing hero’s in cheezy schlock like Kick Ass, The Avengers and Godzilla, but he’s also done some meatier work such as in Oliver Stone’s Savages and Anna Karenina. Here he is simply terrifying as a sociopath and that’s all I will say about that. When he is on screen, there is very little else you can watch.
Film making and technical rendition aside, this movie is something that is going to get you thinking. I saw it yesterday and I’m still going over and over it in my head, looking at the different parts and how they were put together to form an even greater whole. This is powerful cinema. I’m giving this a rating of Sheer Awesome but I am going to qualify that by saying this movie is not for everyone. Watching this movie requires viewer participation and it’s not for the faint of heart. Enjoy and let me know in the comments what you think. I am very interested in your feedback on this one.
If you haven’t subscribed to my channel, do so now and thank you for watching.