NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Menace, Graphic Nudity, and Language

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Directed by: Tom Ford

Written by: Tom Ford

(based on the novel TONY AND SUSAN by Austin Wright)

Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Isla Fisher

On paper, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS sounds like a Hitchcockian psychological head-trip crossed with a pulpy crime thriller. While that description of the film is correct, things do stray into metaphorical and artsy territory more than initially expected. There’s nothing wrong with being an art film, just look at most of the output from Refn, Lynch, Cronenberg, and Von Trier. However, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS occasionally weaves dangerous close to becoming downright pretentious and also attempts to be a little too ambitious, consequently leaving one of its narratives far stronger than the other.

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Susan (Amy Adams) is an uppity art gallery owner who collects and displays bizarre pieces. These strange works of art include: nude morbidly obese dancers who guide us through the film’s opening credits, a cow with arrows sticking out of it that litters the background, and a so-so painting that obviously states one of this film’s main themes. When yet another nail is put in the coffin of her crumbling second marriage, Susan coincidentally receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Titled “Nocturnal Animals” (his nickname for her), Edward’s new novel tells a dark story of murder, madness and bloody revenge. As she becomes hooked on the emotionally damaging book, Susan finds herself remembering her failed relationship with Edward and begins to suspect that the novel might actually be a veiled threat.

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On a visual level, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS looks great. The cinematography is crisp and has a distinct attention-grabbing style. You might want to look away during certain scenes but will find yourself unable to do so, because the film displays its ugliness through the most beautiful lenses. If you want to be a stickler for details, this movie is technically composed of three narratives (though I read it as two). There’s Edward’s novel and then there’s Susan reading it whilst reminiscing (tying past and present scenes together). The tense revenge tale kept me completely engaged to the point where I forgot it was actually a book being read by the main character and this happened numerous times. Personally speaking, the failed relationship plot seemed far more scattershot and less impactful. I think many moviegoers are bound to latch onto one narrative over the other. Whichever one they prefer will likely hinge on the genre they gravitate towards the most.

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The scenes of Edward’s book feature Jake Gyllenhaal as protagonist Tony. Gyllenhaal does a brilliant job in the role (which was kind of expected from his previous work) and this character is made all the more fascinating when you tie him into Gyllenhaal’s performance as author Edward. There’s clearly a symbiotic connection between the real-life writer and his fictitious creation, with Gyllenhaal putting in two distinct performances. Amy Adams is believable as emotionally distressed, deeply depressed Susan. Her facial expressions and body language say far more than any ham-fisted dialogue that explicitly tells us how she’s feeling ever could. Michael Shannon delivers his best work in years as a grizzled vengeance-seeking detective in Edward’s novel. Meanwhile, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is positively terrifying as the psychotic villain of Edward’s book.

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The five main characters from four great performers aren’t where this movie’s acting talent stops though, because many big faces pop up in the sidelines. Armie Hammer doesn’t receive a whole lot to do, but still makes a strong impression as Susan’s disinterested second husband. Isla Fisher shows up as a character in Edward’s novel, resembling Amy Adams in a possible parallel of her. Michael Sheen has an all-too brief appearance as an interesting friend of Susan’s. Finally, Laura Linney shows up for one scene and becomes borderline over-the-top as a stereotypical rich aristocrat, though her small moment does feed into the story in a big way.

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NOCTURNAL ANIMALS seems to have a lot on its mind, with certain themes being rather obvious and others bound to be discovered upon repeat viewings. It’s a metaphorical piece of cinematic art that follows the formula of a tragic drama about a failed relationship and the motions of a grisly crime thriller. However, the latter far outshines the former in this humble reviewer’s opinion. I was expecting the film to tie everything together in more ways than it actually did. This movie certainly keeps the viewer thinking about it long after the credits have rolled and fans of dark, depressing arthouse cinema are bound to find something to love here. Without getting into spoilers, I will also say that the film’s conclusion is unsatisfying in the best possible way. I really liked NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. I think it’s a fascinating piece of work in many respects, but the disconnected difference in quality between the narratives kept me from loving it as much as I wanted to.

Grade: B+

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