Nocturnal Animals’ intelligent story-within-a-story is brutal, engrossing and deeply philosophical.
US, 2016/ 116 mins/ Cert. 15
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher.
Fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford’s second film, the neo-noir Nocturnal Animals, is an ingenious, gripping and thought-provoking piece of cinema. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Venice International Film Festival, the film’s device of having a fictional story within its ‘real’ story, plays with your generic expectations. Seamlessly unifying its divergent generic components - part crime thriller, part emotional drama, part philosophical discourse - Nocturnal Animals asks profound questions about the moral choices we make and their consequences. It works on a narrative level and is pleasing to look at but beyond its surface sheen and intricate plot construction, the film’s richness ultimately derives from the deeply affecting existential questions it poses.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a successful L.A. art gallery owner, worried about her troubled second marriage to Hutton (Armie Hammer) and frustrated at his apparent disinterest in attempting to make their relationship work. When a parcel containing the manuscript of a novel from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), unexpectedly arrives at her office, Susan’s disillusionment with her marriage and career forces a re-evaluation of her life. As she reads the novel, which is dedicated to her and titled Nocturnal Animals - a nickname which Edward gave Susan because of her insomnia - Susan begins to see alarming parallels with the fictional story and their past relationship. Describing the soon-to-be-published novel to a female colleague at the gallery as ‘violent and sad’ and admitting that she ‘did something horrible’ to Edward, Susan rushes off an email to her ex-husband, agreeing to meet him for dinner. As the film flits between the present, with flashbacks of Susan and Edward’s relationship and the story contained within the novel, we discover Susan’s guilty secret, as the boundaries between the “real” and the “imagined” are blurred, both within Susan’s conscience and the cinema audience. We are left to ponder Edward’s motives. Is the devastating story contained within the manuscript a form of revenge against his ex-wife? And how much of the fiction is influenced by the actuality of their unfortunate marriage?
The novel’s story begins with a middle-class husband and wife as they embark upon a road trip to Texas with their teenage daughter, India (Ellie Bamber). As the husband, Tony Hastings, is also played by Gyllenhaal and the wife is played by Isla Fisher who is remarkably similar in appearance to Adams, the visual connection between the two narratives is vividly portrayed. The family are forced off the road at night by local troublemakers and a terrible crime is committed, forcing Hastings, with the help of a Stetson wearing, chain-smoking, Texan detective, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), to hunt down the perpetrators. Andes is a typically tough, noir anti-hero, who has his own personal reasons for wanting to solve the crime as we discover he has cancer and has been told he only has months to live and is threatened with being thrown off the case. These factors serve to increase his determination in seeing that justice is done and he asks Hastings how far he is prepared to go to punish the perpetrators. As the methods of the pair to apprehend the criminals increasingly fall outside the remit of the law, Hastings attempts an uneasy transformation from the educated metropolitan with liberal values at the beginning of the story into a much more ruthless and amoral character; his urbane temperament clashing with the harsh reality of the Texan badlands.
Hastings’ desire to bring the criminals to justice appears to be partially motivated by guilt. During the harrowing and incredibly difficult to watch crime scene,
Hastings comes across as a weak character who
could have been braver and done more to protect his family. He later admits his
weakness to Andes and this parallels neatly with the backstory of Edward’s
courtship and marriage to Susan. When the couple fall in love they are both
studying at college in New York and Edward is struggling to become a writer. It
is his sensitivity and intelligence which initially attracts Susan, however, her
attitude changes and her student idealism diminishes as she becomes
increasingly ambitious. She embarks upon an affair with the younger, more
successful, Hutton whose character seems the direct opposite of Edward’s.
Hutton is strong, reliable and seemingly able to provide the security that
Edward cannot. When Susan informs Edward that the marriage is over, she says
she still admires his imagination and sensitivity which Edward interprets as
meaning he is weak. Throughout the film contrasting depictions of masculinity
are on display. Edward represents the sensitive, intelligent side of
masculinity which is equated with weakness, contrasted with the go-getting,
dependable strength of Hutton. Outside of these two facets, a more toxic
masculinity is represented by the boozing, brawling criminality of the rednecks
which the Hastings encounter in Texas. The question of whether Edward’s
decision to dedicate the novel to Susan and send her the manuscript is motivated
by a desire for vengeance, thus representing another form of intelligent, yet
equally toxic, masculinity is never fully resolved but much of the film’s
tension lies in this aspect of the narrative. Watching the film, I found that
these themes resonate strongly with the current political climate as Nocturnal Animals mirrors recent debates
about male attitudes to women which dominated Donald Trump’s recent
Presidential campaign, giving the film a degree of topicality which the filmmakers
could not have anticipated whilst the film was in production.
The question of Edward’s perceived weakness is emphasised in a notable scene in a restaurant when Susan informs her mother, Anne (Laura Linney) that she and Edward are to be married. Anne is the antithesis of the cultured, idealist and tolerant Susan; an obstinate and over-ambitious reactionary who, we discover, has disowned her son for his homosexuality. She disapproves of Edward, warning her daughter that Susan is like her and that she will regret the marriage, because ‘he is too weak for you… The things that you love about him now are the things you’ll hate’. This short scene is pivotal to our understanding of Susan’s character, as the ostentatious and unlikable Anne nevertheless proves to be intuitive, correctly pointing out that Susan is suppressing her true nature which is more ambitious and egotistical than she realises. The suppression of latent desires and motivations is one of the key themes in the film and it is Susan’s failure to understand her true character which leads to her eventual despair. Edward, on the other hand, seems to be in touch with his authentic self and this emerges through his writing. At one point Susan, unimpressed with one of Edward’s stories, offers him the unwelcome advice that ‘maybe you should write less about yourself.’ Her rejection of Edward’s endeavour is as much a reflection of herself than her finding fault in Edward’s work. She is wary of introspection as she is coming around to Anne’s way of thinking, unable to admit that she possesses her mother’s faults. The irony is that Edward succeeds in getting his novel published by ignoring Susan’s advice and that his story is a fictional reworking of his own defects and an admission of his weakness. Therefore, Nocturnal Animals uses its meta-narrative device to suggest that the impulse towards creativity comes from locating and interrogating our authentic identity. Susan’s mental disintegration is the direct consequence of her bad faith and the film punishes her for this.
Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography in Nocturnal Animals complements the narrative, brilliantly reflecting Susan’s inner turmoil. She is often seen alone, staring out from her modern, luxurious L.A. mansion late at night and the lingering, deep-focus, wide-angled shots of her, mostly filmed from outside, perfectly capture her character’s isolation and sense of alienation. These images are reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s city paintings which depict the melancholy and loneliness of modern
Susan’s spacious state-of-the art home reflects her character’s lavish
lifestyle, in these parts of the film it resembles a prison. The similar use of
the camera is also used to great effect in the establishing shots of the L.A.
cityscape and for the Texan landscape as throughout the film the utilisation of
cinematic space is brilliantly deployed. These relatively lengthy and static
takes are contrasted with the more rapid editing employed during the scenes of
violence in Texas.
The neo-noir aspects of Nocturnal Animals recall moments from a number of Coen Brothers’ films - minus their dark comedy. The Texan setting of the fictional segment of the film reminded me of Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men and Nocturnal Animals is just as brutal as anything in the Coens’ canon. Moreover, its focus upon a central, lonely protagonist trapped by circumstance contains the same psychological intensity of The Man Who Wasn’t There and Fargo. Although Nocturnal Animals far less eccentric than the Coens’ dramas, it poses similar existential questions within its binary plot construction.
Nocturnal Animals is a stylish and original thriller-cum-melodrama which remains an enigma right until it’s unresolved, emotionally bleak conclusion. All of the central performances are magnificent which help the film to perform the trick of presenting its nuanced double narrative. Amy Adams is terrific as the beautiful - but damaged - Susan, perfectly capturing her character’s vulnerability, as is Jake Gyllenhaal in his dual role. Both Michael Shannon as the uncompromising Texan detective and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the snarling alpha-male of the Texan gang provide tremendous support. The pulp noir strand of the story is brutal, though it complements rather than overpowers the more sophisticated and meditative main drama. The film’s major themes of love, regret and revenge are skilfully woven into the film’s texture and Nocturnal Animals will benefit from repeated viewings in order to fully appreciate its philosophical and structural complexities.