Nocturnal Animals – “Having a gay husband is not such a bad thing,” says Susan’s friend at her gallery opening. That, along with Fellini-esque majorette dancing fat ladies in a performance piece, is enough to place you in Los Angeles. Susan is married to a man almost as pretty as she is but he’s a smooth, philandering stiff and she’s finding a great deal of emptiness in her second marriage.
Review and recap Nocturnal Animals
When ex-husband Edward Sheffield sends Susan a copy of his novel, it sends her into a reconsideration of her past and present unhappiness. Writer/Director Tom Ford insinuates an entire novel into a tight film that entertains but ultimately leaves you feeling as unrequited as Susan is.
That’s the point, I think. This film dives right the purgatory lying between lavish appearance and cold reality.
Amy Adams is Susan, who has channeled her younger artistic soul into art house commercialism. She operates a trendy Los Angeles art gallery. Her husband Hutton Morrow is some kind of corporate sales type. While he’s away on a business trip plus girlfriend, lonely Susan is home alone.
Susan gets sucked into the maelstrom of her past when she receives a copy of a novel written by her ex-husband. Title of the new novel is “Nocturnal Animals.” It’s dedicated to Susan. She’s touched he’s sent it to her after a nineteen year absence of communication. It’s the last remaining thread connecting to her life before Hutton.
Though it sounds complicated, the fictional story in the novel is easy enough to follow once you realize it’s a story inside a story. The inside novel story line is a nightmarish trip through the west Texas desert. Tony Hastings travels in an old Mercedes Benz with wife Laura and daughter India.
It’s nighttime when they are terrorized by marauding psychopaths in roadrunner cars. After minutes of sheer highway terror, Tony’s car is forced to a roadside ditch. The short version is that the thugs dump Tony in the desert, take off with the two women. Both women are raped and murdered. The events depicted in the film are tortured, horrifying and prolonged.
Jack Gyllenhall as the dad and husband Tony Hastings doesn’t fight back for his wife and daughter as earnestly as Dustin Hoffman did in Sam Peckinpah’s (1971) “Straw Dogs.” And ‘prolonged’ doesn’t mean as long as the torment suffered by the home-invaded family in the Austrian (1997) thriller-horror film “Funny Games,” directed by Michael Haneke. But the roadside torment is quite enough and terrifyingly real.
Enter Bobby Andes, a tall rail-thin chain smoking lawman with tombstones in his eyes. He’s short of words and long on desperation, but his strength is controlled, held in check, like that of a coiled snake. Andes takes up the case of the missing women and, with Tony’s assistance, finds them naked and dead on a red couch in a roadside dumping ground. Bobby Andes is the guy Tony Hastings would have wanted to be when his wife and daughter were taken.
The film cuts back and forth into the backstory of Susan’s meeting and eventually failed first marriage to the novelist. Her mother, a wealthy Texas socialite, warned her and mommy’s ominous dictum eventually comes to pass. The marriage to a penniless novelist would make her ultimately unhappy. Prophecy fulfilled. “In the end, we all become our mothers,” says Susan’s mother.
The novel’s fiction is allegorical. To some extent and by reach of the imagination, the novel symbolizes the ebb and flow of Susan’s first failed marriage. The marriage dies at the end, just as the fictional hero Tony Hastings does. Whether an audience makes that connection, or even if it’s what the director intended, makes for an interesting intellectual debate though I prefer to watch it on a visceral level.
I liked the movie. I liked watching Amy Adams’ intimate character portrayal of a Susan going through changes. Her life is glittery dreck and, while that leaves her cold, she knows it’s better than dreck without the glitter.
The style of the film is cinematically pleasing. Great camera work by Seamus McGarvey combines with a mellifluous musical score by Abel Korzeniowski to create mesmerizing noir-moderne. There are myriad visual clues that make the appearance vs. reality counterpoint subtly and with only incidental sermonizing.
The flashbacks into Susan’s early relationship with Edward show a young woman not sure which side of the fence she’ll fall on. Soon-to-be husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an unfinished, poorly defined work in progress, described by Susan’s mother as “weak,” by Susan as “sensitive.”
This same ‘weak’ character appears in the novel where the perception of ‘weakness’ becomes the essential theme. The novelist himself is struggling with himself and the harsh judgments of the ‘real world’ – money, material, the appearance of success.
Ironic, because early in the film Susan confides their money problems and the importance of putting up a good front. Instead of wealthy, happy, and successful, you get the appearance of happiness, the appearance of wealth, and the appearance of success. Susan holds her head high, smiles, puts on heavy art-house makeup, great dresses, looks good, while dying inside.
There is an unavoidable visual clue when, in the present reality, Susan walks by a huge modern painting in the gallery. In bold black letters scattered on a large canvas is the word : REVENGE. Susan’s a bit puzzled, not remembering when or why she bought it.
In receiving a copy of Edward’s powerful novel, Susan now has some hope of blunting the jagged broken edges of her past. He’s put his email address at the bottom, inviting communication. She reaches out, he texts her back, and it’s on. Or seems to be.
They arrange to meet at a svelte Los Angeles restaurant. Preparing for the reunion, Susan picks her wardrobe carefully, a stunning green dress. Her movements are careful, almost ritualistic. She studies herself in the mirror, looking inward, deciding to wipe away the penetrating red lipstick she’d applied. Her look has to be the right look, the unadorned look of her youth. Her past and her present will finally meet and be reconciled.
The last we see of her is when she is being seated by the maitre’d at the chic restaurant. Alone at the table and waiting. Striking in her green dress, red hair, pellucid blue eyes. She’s waiting, and waiting. Alone.
Characters and cast of Nocturnal Animals include:
Susan Morrow – Amy Adams (Sharp Objects, Arrival, Big Eyes, American Hustle, Her, Man of Steel, The Fighter, The Master, Leap Year, Trouble with the Curve, Doubt, On the Road)
Tony Hastings/Edward Sheffield – Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Everest, NightCrawler, Zodiac, Brokeback Mountain, Southpaw)
Bobby Andes – Michael Shanon (Take Shelter, Man of Steel, Loving, Elvis & Nixon, Boardwalk Empire, Mud, 8 Mile)
Ray Marcus – Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Godzilla, Anna Karenina, Kick-Ass, The Illusionist)
Laura Hastings – Isla Fisher (Home and Away, Arrested Development, The Great Gatsby, I Heart Huckabees, Now You See Me)
India Hastings – Ellie Bamber
Hutton Morrow – Armie Hammer (The Man from UNCLE, The Social Network, The Lone Ranger)
Lou – Karl Glusman (Gypsy, The Neon Demon)
Turk – Robert Aramayo (Harley and the Davidsons, Lost in Florence, Game of Thrones)
Anne Sutton – Laura Linney (The Truman Show, Mystic River, Primal Fear, Sully, John Adams, Breach, The Savages, The Big C, Ozark)
Alessia – Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin, Bloodline, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Welcome to the Punch, Brighton Rock, Oblivion)
Carlos – Michael Sheen (Midnight in Paris, Masters of Sex, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Damned United, Frost/Nixon, Blood Diamond, The Queen, Kingdom of Heaven, Underworld: Evolution, Heartlands)
Samantha Morrow – India Menuez
Sage Ross – Jena Malone (Contact, Into the Wild, Pride & Prejudice, The Hunger Games: Catching Fires, Inherent Vice)