OP-ROB RATING: ALL-STAR
A little less than a year ago, a girl asked me what it felt like to be spineless. I don’t remember what I said in reply, but I remember how it felt to be affronted like that. “Nocturnal Animals” brought that feeling to the surface of my memory through its innovative, and shocking story. Directed by Tom Ford, “Nocturnal Animals” is a story within a story. The first layer of the film is about a middle-aged Art Gallery Owner named Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). She lives a sleek and lavish lifestyle in Los Angeles with her unfaithful husband, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer). One day Susan receives a package in the mail from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) containing a copy of a manuscript for a novel he plans to publish. Susan begins reading the novel titled Nocturnal Animals and the second layer of the film portrays the events written by Edward in the book. Ford periodically shifts in and out of the novel as Susan works her way through it.
Edward's novel opens with a man named Tony Hastings (also portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal) driving his wife and daughter down the highway through West Texas in the middle of the night. All is well until they encounter two other vehicles, one of which runs them off of the road. Tony is helpless to protect his family, as three young men get out of their cars and surround them. Ultimately, Tony and his wife and daughter are forced out of their car and separated. A beaten up Tony is driven by one of the young men down a dirt road and left there. The leader of the bandits, a scruffy and wild-eyed kid named Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), returns with his friend to pick up Tony calling out to him, "Hey mister, your wife and daughter want you!" However, Tony hides behind some rocks, afraid that they may already be dead, or possibly out of his own cowardice. By light of day, Tony eventually makes his way out of the desert to a police station where he reports what happened. He is then introduced to Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) who takes on the case. A stark contrast is drawn between Tony and Bobby. One is sensitive, while the other is as gritty and unforgiving as the landscape of West Texas. The pair embarks on a mission to find Tony's family as well as the evil men who kidnapped them.
In the film, Ford cuts in between the real story happening with Susan and the fictitious novel she is working through. It is an ambitious move to have two stories going at once and it doesn’t always work. There are multiple cuts to Susan just lying down as if she were in a fashion advertisement, totally meaningless, and then back to the novel. This happens too many times to ignore and shows Ford's weakness as a compulsive director who has the tendency to over-stylize aspects of his film. Another example of this occurs in the opening scene, which is of nude, obese women dancing around at Susan’s art gallery. These scenes are distractions from the actual story and drain from the film’s potency.
Despite these problems, "Nocturnal Animals" is a fascinating exploration into what it means to be masculine. In both storylines there are "weak" and "sensitive" men in Edward and Tony. Unfortunately for the latter, his demeanor robs him of all that he has. It is only through the ultra-masculine Bobby Andes that he is guided toward vengeance. However, it is Edward’s story that is the most effective in Ford's film, because he is also robbed of something invaluable because of his “weakness”. As we learn throughout the movie and with various tidbits of foreshadowing, Edward's novel Nocturnal Animals is a direct message to Susan. In a masterful ending, she realizes what the novel meant.
“Nocturnal Animals” was recommended to me by one of the most astute observers of film that I know. He described it as “a jab to the ego of any man”, and he was absolutely correct. It reminded me exactly of the question that girl asked me many months ago, which was a jab to my core as well. Not many films have the ability to shake you like the real thing. “Nocturnal Animals” does. While there are some annoying artistic gimmicks here and there throughout the film, the overall product is focused and powerful. Ultimately, the film could mean many things, possibly that unpleasant and brutal men like Bobby Andes are needed to combat the vast evil that exists in this world while quiet, sensitive men like Tony Hastings are needed to preserve the good that’s also here. Or perhaps that revenge is best served cold.