Mark Reviews Movies

Nocturnal Animals


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tom Ford

Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen

MPAA Rating: R (for violence, menace, graphic nudity, and language)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 11/18/16 (limited); 11/23/16 (wider); 12/9/16 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 22, 2016

Two stories run parallel through Nocturnal Animals. One is reality. The other is a work of fiction (Technically, they're both fiction, but you know what I mean). The challenge for writer/director Tom Ford is that the latter tale is the more involving one.

Even the central real-life character in the movie is willing to admit that. She essentially puts her entire life on hold as she becomes more and more enthralled by the events in a novel, written by a man she once knew. At a certain point, it begins to seem as if the story set in the real world amounts to nothing more than a series of shots of the woman reading, reacting to what has just unfolded on the page, and going through her life in a daze.

Early on, those scenes primarily serve as an escape from the intensity of the novel's story, which grows increasingly hopeless with each new development. Gradually, this woman begins to tell another story in her mind, as she remembers the author of the manuscript and the life they once had together. As it turns out, her picture of the physical appearance of the novel's hero is the same as the man she actually knew. She always did observe that his writing is always about himself.

The conceit is that we're meant to find the similarities here, even though the stories are different in tone and method. One is a fairly standard, if particularly nihilistic, revenge tale, and the other is a doomed romance between star-crossed lovers who are divided by class, ambition, and worldview. One is a tale of murder and obsession. The other is, well, a lot more mundane.

The reader is Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner who receives the manuscript for a yet-unpublished novel from her ex-husband in the mail, just as her current husband (Armie Hammer) is about to take an unexpected business trip. The book, which the ex has dedicated to Susan, concerns Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), a regular guy in Texas with a wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber).

While on an all-night road trip, the family encounters a trio of thugs, led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who runs Tony's car off the road and proceed to tease, taunt, and torment the family. Outnumbered and without a means to defend himself, Tony watches as Ray and one of his goons drive off with his wife and daughter. Tony is driven out to and left in the middle of nowhere. After making his way back to civilization, he contacts the police, and local police detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, doing what he usually does with a generic role—twisting it into something wholly unique) takes the case.

The secondary story relies entirely on its plot developments for effect, so there's no reason to divulge any more of the specific details. At first, Susan's role is simply to react—with distress at the terror of the scene on the road, with a gasp at where the mystery of Tony's missing family leads, with a detached look on her face as she bathes, showers, and goes back to work.

The story has affected her, and for a while, that is about the most significant thing that we learn about Susan and her story. Of  minor note, she is tired of the artificial nature of her well-to-do life (Ford makes the dirt and grit of West Texas far more lively—despite the horrible things happening there—than the sterile backdrops of Susan's home and office), and she discovers that her current husband is having an affair.

Through the great imbalance of dramatic significance between these two plots, Susan quickly becomes an unnecessary player in a story that is, ultimately, about her. Ford's screenplay (based on Austin Wright's novel Tony and Susan) takes its time in making an actual connection between Susan and the book she's devouring.  It comes in the form of flashbacks to her relationship with the author (also played by Gyllenhaal), which hits the expected beats. What Ford mainly does in these scenes is to provide cues of the visual (Gyllenhaal playing both roles, being the most obvious one) and verbal (the use of the word "weak") varieties, so that we can look and listen for them to turn up again in the story of the novel.

The connections are there, and to his credit, Ford doesn't overemphasize them. Tony's story is involving enough on its own merits, and the need to try to tie it to Susan's memories of the author and her own behavior toward him doesn't add anything to it.

That's because the more engaging story—the fictional one—is a commentary on the less involving, real-world one. Susan's story needs Tony's to fill in a few, key blanks (mainly, the absence of the author). What those connections add up to, though, is disappointingly hollow and a bit redundant. In the end, Nocturnal Animals uses a sensationalistic story of vengeance as a way to explain a sneakier sort of revenge. It's a trick—just not an especially challenging or enlightening one.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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