“Nocturnal Animals” makes it very clear from the beginning that it will not be a pleasant experience at all. As reflected by the bold, striking opening sequence which shows an intentionally tasteless art exhibition featuring naked overweight women, this is a stylish work of deliberate nastiness, and some of you may not like its dark, twisted aspects which gradually emerge from its plot.
The art exhibition in question is held at a posh modern art gallery in LA which is owned by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), and the main story begins when she receives a package from her novelist ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has been estranged from her for nearly 20 years since their divorce. The package contains the manuscript of his novel which will be soon published according to his accompanying letter, and the novel, titled “Nocturnal Animals”, is dedicated to none other than Susan.
Edward’s novel is about the unfortunate ordeal of its ordinary hero Tony Hastings, who is also played by Gyllenhaal. When Tony is driving along a remote road somewhere in Texas with his wife and daughter in the car during one night, they happen to encounter a trio of vicious thugs on the road, and this results in a horrific situation where Tony’s wife and daughter are kidnapped and then brutally raped and murdered. Tony luckily manages to avoid getting killed during that dreadful night, but he is devastated by this irreversible loss, and he gets some sympathy from Lieutenant Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a local cop assigned to the case.
While Edward’s novel is wholly fictional, Susan becomes uncomfortable due to what is felt between lines, and we get several flashback scenes which give us the glimpses into what happened between her and Edward in the past. Not long after they came across each other in New York City as old hometown friends, they fell in love with each other, and they eventually married despite her mother’s objection, but they soon found themselves being disappointed with each other. In the end, she broke up with him and moved onto her second husband Hutton (Armie Hammer), and, as she admits at one point, she came to commit something which was quite hurtful to Edward.
As it becomes apparent that the novel is the indirect demonstration of Edward’s deep anger and grief caused by their breakup, the movie also focuses on how life is not that good for Susan. Although she has been rich and successful for years, she is usually alone in her big, slick modern house which sometimes feels like an empty art gallery rather than an actual living place. She and Hutton seldom spend time together, and there is a bitter moment when she happens to be painfully reminded again of how distant they have been to each other.
The director Tom Ford, who also wrote the adapted screenplay based on Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan”, deftly juggles the multiple plotlines of his movie through impeccable mood and style to engage us. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is striking in its vivid visual contrast between the different backgrounds in the film, and McGarvey especially did a terrific job of establishing the stark rural atmosphere surrounding the characters of Edward’s novel. The production design by Shane Valentino and Meg Everist is impressive with those modern artworks and designs surrounding Susan, and the score by Abel Korzeniowski constantly generates the sense of agitation as suggesting the emotional undercurrents swirling below the screen.
The performers in the movie are interesting to watch. Since her endearing supporting performance in “Junebug” (2005), Amy Adams has impressed us with a number of wonderfully various performances during last several years, and she is engaging as usual here in a role which could be pretty thankless. She simply reacts during many scenes in the film, but her wordless reactions convey us the growing emotional turmoil insider her character, and her performance eventually functions as a strong emotional link to connect the different elements of the movie together. On the opposite, Jake Gyllenhaal is equally solid in his dual roles, and he is particularly good when Tony struggles with his overwhelming grief, which comes to resonate with whatever was felt by Edward during that painful time.
The movie has many notable performers around Adams and Gyllenhaal. While Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Armie Hammer, Jena Malone, Laura Linney, and Isla Fisher fill their respective supporting roles as required, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who unexpectedly won the Best Supporting Actor award at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony on last Sunday, is effectively hateful with his ungainly appearance. In case of Michael Shannon, he steals the show with his own distinctive presence, and his several scenes in the movie remind me again of why he is one of the most interesting character actors in our time.
On the whole, “Nocturnal Animals”, which received the Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival in last year, is a mean exercise in style, but I enjoyed its style, mood, and acting even though I was also bothered by its misanthropic attitude to some degrees. When I watched the movie during this Wednesday night, there was only a young couple besides me in the screening room, and now I wonder how they felt about the movie. They probably felt bad, but they were warned from the start, weren’t they?