Movie Review: Nocturnal Animals

Double story contrasts the art world with a grim crime in the desert

Nocturnal Animals
Directed by Tom Ford
With Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney

Reading a book does not sound like a thrilling plot. In Nocturnal Animals, successful gallery owner Susan Morrow (played by Amy Adams) gets a soon-to-be published manuscript titled Nocturnal Animals from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Venice Film Festival, but may prove too artsy for other annual awards.

As Susan reads the book and scenes from it as she imagines them are dramatized for the audience, her own perfect life starts to unravel. Susan's relationship with ex-husband Edward is also seen in flashback. Jake Gyllenhaal appears in the flashbacks as Edward and also as the protagonist of his novel, Tony Hastings.

The novel is something in the spirit of Jim Thompson — a dark tale set in the dusty back roads of Texas. Tony Hastings and his family get forced off the road by a gang of criminals, and bad goes to worse, and then even worse than that. It is as a grim and downbeat a tale as can be seen on the screen.

Susan never believed in her ex-husband's writing talent, and now seems oddly drawn into his manuscript, as if it was written for her alone. As she reads the book and reflects on her current life, she seems to regret many of her own choices that led her to where she is.

The depiction of the crime novel is actually a stronger part than the plot dealing with the art gallery and Susan's marital troubles.

Jake Gyllenhaal in the crime novel part is aided by Michael Shannon as a non-nonsense Texas lawman named Detective Bobby Andes. Shannon usually plays unsympathetic characters. He pushes himself a bit here, trying to do the right thing, but still doesn't crack a smile. His approach to solving the crime is a bit out of the ordinary.

Shannon and Gyllenhaal both rank among the best actors working today. They bring the grim crime drama up above its pulp fiction roots. Comparatively the rest of the film is almost forgettable.

Gyllenhaal is a bit less compelling as the husband in the flashbacks. The plot requires him to be a bit weaker, as this is the way his now successful ex-wife remembers him.

Amy Adams recently delivered a good performance in Arrival as a linguist. She is a not as successful here, never earning much sympathy from the audience despite her character's series of work and relationship troubles. She seems so lost and confused by everything that it is hard to imagine how she got so far on her own in the art world. Susan's new husband, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) also doesn't register much of an impression.

The film is the second one directed by fashion designer Tom Ford. His 2009 film A Single Man won the Queer Lion at the Venice International Film Festival.

For Nocturnal Animals, Ford wrote the screenplay based on a 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. He retains the novel's unrelenting tone. Usually even crime films and marital dramas offer some comic relief or pleasant moments. Nocturnal Animals offers the viewer no safe spaces.

The film does work, though, by contrasting the violence of the novel contrasting with the hollow emptiness of the lives of Susan and the people in the art world that she is surrounded with. Still, it is a rather unrelenting exercise in nihilism and tragedy.

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