“Our world is a lot less painful than the real world.”
The first images we see are of obese middle-aged women floating in slow motion with pride and dignity, wearing only their birthday suits, soldier helmets, shoulders draped by epaulets. This controls the screen throughout the entire opening credits. We’re not sure why either, waiting and wondering with zero context. One couple in my theater even left, apparently appalled by the sight of real human bodies dancing and sharing a real sense of undressed joy. Turns out it’s an art exhibit, the footage playing on screens while tableaux show the women laying face down on blocks spread throughout the gallery. It’s a puzzling decision, and one that after much thought, is representative of the film’s main theme. There’s happiness and vitality to these women seen through a processed image. But in reality, they are shamed, dehumanized, ugly, ass to the sky. Nocturnal Animals separates these emotions as distinctly as oil from water, sharing a story told with grim, gravitas, and a feverish fictional world set within a stark reality.
Those observing the art belong to the jet set crowd. Elite, posh, holding champagne flutes. Susan Morrow (Amy Adams, great as ever) is the gallerist overlooking the elite. She looks to match the part, her dress plunging in the front and her straightened hair cascading off to the right, wearing heavy eye makeup. We can tell this woman is unhappy, and later come to learn that it’s because she is unfulfilled. In a series of expertly placed flashbacks, Susan is seen with her old flame and eventual ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s a hopeful author and a soft man; Susan’s mother (Laura Linney) mistakes this for weakness. And the unraveling of their relationship comes from Susan’s own hesitancy to chase her ambitions of being an artist. Edward pushes Susan, she shoves back, and the gap between them grows. The flashbacks further serve to explain that puzzling opening. This woman’s career choice floods her surroundings with constant reminders of “what if?” Susan is a sad character.
What’s so brilliant about Nocturnal Animals is the way in which these two characters communicate without ever meeting face to face. Susan is stuck at home while her cheating husband (Armie Hammer) flies back to New York. A package arrives tightly sealed in cardboard paper. Opening it gives her a paper cut. An ominous sign indeed. Inside is a manuscript of Edward’s novel. It’s titled “Nocturnal Animals,” which used to be his nickname for Susan. Even the dedication is addressed to her. So as Susan reads, we watch the story command the screen, and in perhaps the film’s most crucial detail, we must take it upon ourselves to see the connections and the disconnect. We know what Edward looks like, and when the story within the story unfolds, there’s the same man but with a bearded face. The wife has red hair, so does the daughter, but they’re played by different people. Edward’s novel is harrowing, intense, violent. He wants Susan to vicariously face these feelings, but by having Gyllenhaal play both roles, we know he is the one who has lived them, and to this day continues to subject himself to. The sorrow becomes shared.
I’m always taken by movies that are able to create a memorable piece of made-up art somewhere inside themselves. “Nocturnal Animals” is just that. Revenge is the plot, his wife and daughter kidnapped after a white-knuckled incident on Texas back roads. Tony Hastings (still Gyllenhaal) teams with investigator Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), they look for Ray Marcus (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) and his two dimwit ruffians, still hoping for the safety of his loved ones. What happens in these scenes had me shuffling in my seat, palms clenched, literally sweating. Much of that is credit to the trio of Shannon, Johnson, and Gyllenhaal. But when we cut back to Susan and we see the toll it is taking on her – slamming the book shut or waking to call and check on her now grown daughter – we realize Edward’s revenge is for Susan’s cold heart to feel the pain he felt when she refused their requited love.
Nocturnal Animals does perhaps the best job I’ve ever seen in cinema of depicting the concentrated focus and voracious consumption of a great book. Pouring over the pages and devouring the words, a little world living within binding airlifted from the pages and turned into a wide awake dream landscape in our heads. And like a dream, outside stimuli often become a part of this headlong reality through sound and touch and smell. That’s what this film somehow achieves. At this point in his renowned fashion career we’ve come to expect writer/director Tom Ford to be able to shoot Susan’s haute couture reality with a sharp modern design. But what’s so truly incredible is this man’s ability not just to direct – he’s a visionary and a limitless talent – but to pen a restrained Southern Gothic tale bursting at the seams, full of distinct individuals, the dialogue personal and varied and captivating. Ford’s second feature is the kind of movie that grows on you over time. It’s unrelenting in its solemnity. It doesn’t settle for easy ends. It holds you helplessly in a straight jacket. And with the line below, declares that the written word – with the right structure, diction, and emphasis – strikes a deep, occasionally unsettling chord. Nocturnal Animals lives within itself, and leaves an uncomfortable niche for us to crawl inside. No other American film this year has embodied the phrase “life imitates art” more literally or metaphysically than this one. Someday it’ll hang on walls alongside other cult classics. Rightfully so.
“If I write it down it’ll last forever.”
Rating: 5 out of 5