Reviewed By Nicholas Vandeloecht
You know, with this movie being called Nocturnal Animals, I was half-expecting to see a fox, a deer or even a cat, but in the film’s kickoff I got a whoooooole lot of something else instead. Nocturnal Animals is both written and directed by Tom Ford and is based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel named Tony and Susan. This movie features an all-star cast of Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer and Laura Linney and tells what is best described as a three-part tale. The opening part is set in present day and shows how Adams‘ character Susan leads this posh lifestyle as an artist in this artsy high-class snobbish world while struggling with the strained relationship between herself and her current husband played by Hammer. Near the beginning of the movie, she receives this manuscript from her ex-husband Edward, played by Gyllenhaal, who is this writer that wants to share this story with her to achieve a certain purpose.
The story enclosed in the manuscript is the second part of this movie and tells the story of a man named Tony, played also by Gyllenhaal, and how he, his wife played by Fisher and their daughter encounter this psychotic group of men led by Taylor-Johnson and the gritty adventure that ensues from this meeting. This part features a no-nonsense law officer played superbly by Shannon.The third part of the movie takes viewers back to the past where they see how Susan and her first husband Edward meet and also the circumstances that drive them apart.
So first off, three actors totally slay it in this movie. Gyllenhaal, in his dual role as first husband Edward and also the protagonist of Edward’s story, realized both parts so fluidly, and he did it with a lot of devastating range. You see the intended limitations of his character as Edward and how he both struggles with those limitations and overcomes them as his storybook counterpart Tony. There’s one scene where he just goes all in as Tony and it works really, really well. Michael Shannon as the storybook sheriff is just this tough, take-no-prisoners foil to Tony, but is also struggling with his own stuff, preventing him from becoming this invincible machine of masculinity and allows Tony to step into the central role of the novel. Taylor-Johnson also slips so comfortably into his role like a cool cotton shirt, and in addition to being terrifying and creepy, he pulls off one rather comedic scene that ironically features no shirt and shows his insanity through a lighter lens after you get the full helping of his sinister side early on. Outside of those three performances, I did really like Linney’s brief but chilling role as Susan’s elitist mother. She totally delivers in making her scene with Adams one of the more delicious standouts.
As for Adams, I absolutely loved her in Arrival, and she is undeniably one of those select actors whose stuff I always look forward to seeing just because, even in crappy roles, she always gives you her A-game. Here, she does the most with what she’s given, and sadly, it’s not a lot. Through much of the film I thought the title should have been “Susan reads Nocturnal Animals” because a lot of Adams‘ screen time, I felt, was spent on her character Susan reacting to what she read in the book and thinking about what she read in the book. Her only avenue here to show off her acting chops is really through conversations with other characters, and even then it’s still a little hit or miss. In these dialogue scenes, she shines the brightest when interacting with Linney and Gyllenhaal, but the opening scenes where she talks about her issues feel iffy and are somewhat like “okay sure, but I’ve seen these discussion tropes before,” and I didn’t always see Susan whereas I saw Adams become Louise Banks in Arrival. I particularly wasn’t too crazy about her early interactions with Hammer. Even with how they were both supposed to be these more fake elitist types, I still saw their interactions as being rather uninteresting and sort of cheesy. Adams‘ role seemed underwritten even though she certainly has some really good standout, emotional moments in this film.
I didn’t think the opening scenes of the second story were done well; even though some of the moments that happened early on were supposed to feel chaotic, they felt too sloppy and repetitive to me to really sell the tension of Tony’s family being in this very uncomfortable and frightening spot with Taylor-Johnson’s horrid character.
I did, however, really see both Taylor-Johnson and Gyllenhaal thrive here in their characters, and from the start they stayed on point and demonstrated how the reality of one man’s masculinity clashes with the daunting societal expectations for what a successful, socially approved male is supposed to be.
That’s one takeaway I really liked from Nocturnal Animals. While it’s not the prevalent theme, masculinity here is examined as far as which males, in the eyes of society, are allowed to truly love and have families, and which traits a man is supposed to have to either keep his relationship or save his family. Shannon’s sheriff in many ways is Tony’s foil as this masculine tough guy type who , even as a masculine character, has his own troubles. There are also displays of femininity and its power, particularly in the very opening scene which I’ll talk about later. I’m not sure if the view here is flattering, but I will say that even though Adams‘ character has some serious baggage, she’s not a character who I personally wanted to see fail. You see where she’s coming from and you can definitely feel for her character.
There are some confusing moments throughout, particularly regarding a reveal with Adams‘ character that clashed a little with something you learn about her early on. There’s also one scene towards the first half of the film that ended up being way too stylized even though the movie was quickly drawing parallels between the first two parts of the story. You also meet this character in this art-parallel scene that never appears again, which bothered me particularly given how much it clashes with later information.
The ending grew on me once I realized what it was supposed to mean. But I think the journey did have some slow moving parts that were a little frustrating, and while the pacing was mostly consistent, I think there could’ve been less Amy Adams laying around, drifting off and thinking about the story. I wanted to see a little more of what exactly makes her a Nocturnal Animal other than her just staying awake at night.
And now for the opening scene. I’m not spoiling it – although I will give you advice for it. Go into this movie while thinking of the weirdest, bizarrest sight you can imagine, and wonder to yourself if what you see to open the movie is either not as bizarre, IS as bizarre or still tops the weirdest thing you were imagining. I personally appreciated the scene after thinking back on it and what it does to really flesh out Susan’s mindset, but I was worried then and there that people were going to walk out on the film before it could even get any momentum going.
The themes here are what reach through all three stories, but even then, the handling of the separate parts doesn’t do quite enough to fully connect them all together.
This is a divisive film for which I’m falling somewhere in that elusive middle. It’s an artistic film with phenomenal performances from three of its main characters plus a great scene from Linney, but with a rather weak beginning following its jarring opener, some clashing moments and something of a disconnect between the three stories despite the overarching intentions of the characters, Nocturnal Animals isn’t as engrossing as I wish it were. It still provides a lot to think about and had its fair share of great moments, and for that, Nocturnal Animals gets a 7.1. It’s higher than I imagined, though I feel this is one of those rare high-quality films where I’m glad I saw it once and will certainly be okay with never having to see it again.