by Benjamín Harguindey
Nocturnal Animals is a strange, unnerving kind of movie that suggests the oppressiveness of a nightmare without turning to surrealistic imagery or other such dreamlike tropes. Like a nightmare, it railroads its protagonist on a fatalistic journey where everything entails terrible things, and things seem to play out for the worst. It’s exploitative, less for what it shows and more because of how it toys with our emotions.
This is the second feature length film written and directed by Tom Ford, the fashion designer turned movie director who wowed the world with his adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s melancholy A Single Man (2009) and here displays an equally impeccable flair for visual composition and the evocation of a unique, distinctive world. Ford won the Grand Jury Prize for direction at this year’s Venice Film Festival and he may very well have a stab at the coming Academy Awards both as director and screenwriter (adapting Austin Wright’s novel).
The story opens on Susan (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner so disenchanted with her life that she has taken to rebelling in her own frivolity. We see the extent to which she hates herself in her work, her latest installation a mockery of beauty and taste (a group of morbidly obese women dancing in slow-mo to intensely melodramatic music, stark naked but for the 4th of July flags and flares they wave around). She’s also married to the handsome but cold Hutton (Armie Hammer), who’s obviously cheating on her but she can’t hate him for it because there was probably no love in the first place. Even the sumptuous L.A. mansion where she resides seems dark and alien more than anything.
Now Susan receives in the mail a book manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) with a solitary note attached saying “Read me”. Susan reads the novel – titled Nocturnal Animals – and its plot becomes a story-within-a-story. That the main character, Tony, is also played by Gyllenhaal is either due to Susan’s mental casting or a concession that there is perhaps an autobiographical element to the tale, but to what degree?
Tony’s story is, on the surface, a riff on the bourgeois fear of running afoul with lower-class peril, and indeed its centerpiece is a lengthy sequence in which he’s run off a desolate Texan road in the dead of night by a gang of passive-aggressive rednecks. The scene is all the more painful because everything in it is designed to undermine our pathetic “hero”, a man so hopelessly lost in denial that he lives in a state of wishful thinking, even as his wife and daughter are taken from him.
It looks like Tony will be taken on a classic revenge tale where he mans up ala Death Wish (1974), but he remains eerily disconnected from his own story, as if being shepherded through a dream where things unfold regardless of what he says or does. He is assisted by a scene-stealing Michael Shannon as Bobby Andes, the Stetson-wearing cop in charge of the investigation. The character works almost like a rugged, wishful extension of meek Tony, advancing the plot and facilitating Tony’s involvement, who in turn is bound by nightmare-logic into impotence and failure.
Meanwhile Susan’s world is somehow compromised by her reading. She flinches. She panics. She can’t stomach some parts, and neither could the audience, probably, were they not buffered by two degrees of separation. But why is Susan haunted so? As she goes on about her everyday life with added paranoia, she also starts flashing back to her cute but horribly doomed relationship with Edward.
Ultimately Nocturnal Animals is about reconciling the mysterious connection between Susan’s present-day anguish, her romantic past with Edward and the tour de force that is Edward’s novel. All of these threads sound like a bundle but the movie strings them seamlessly to create a single, nightmarish atmosphere of sorrow and remorse.
There’s definitely a David Lynch vibe to all of this. There is the theatricality of the intro, reminiscent of Blue Velvet (1986); Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the irredeemably evil villain has shades of Frank Booth. There’s the recurring imagery of nighttime roads ala Lost Highway (1997), and Laura Linney’s one scene as Susan’s disapproving mother, a grand dame caricature reminiscent of Diane Ladd’s Southern belle from Wild at Heart (1990). Above all there’s some Mulholland Dr. (2001) voodoo at work, a sense that the whole movie is running inside someone’s tortured mind. Someone with a love so strong that it took a turn to cruelty.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).