Review: Nocturnal Animals
By John Corrado
★★½ (out of 4)
Directed by Tom Ford, following up his masterful directorial debut A Single Man, Nocturnal Animals is a story within a story where the story within the story is infinitely more compelling than the actual plot. This means it’s only really half worth seeing.
The film follows Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a wealthy curator at a pretentious art gallery who receives a book manuscript from her ex-husband Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), which she sees as a sort of thinly veiled symbolic message. As she reads the book over a weekend alone, Susan is forced to confront the pain of her past and the allegories about the life they spent together that Tony is trying to convey.
While Susan reads his novel, we see the violent story he wrote unfolding onscreen. The book involves a man named Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is taking a road trip with his wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber) through rural Texas, when they are run off the road by the deranged Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his gang of thugs. When his wife and daughter are brutally violated, Edward teams up with law-bending sherif Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to get revenge at all costs.
While this narrative structure is wholly ambitious to attempt, the problem is that these two stories can feel awkwardly matched beside each other, and Nocturnal Animals is more interesting when we are in the story than out of it. The parts of the film that are focused on rich people in fancy houses sipping wine and wearing designer clothes feel hollow and are pretty hard to take, but the gritty revenge thriller woven throughout is gripping enough to keep us watching, thanks to the solid performances. Jake Gyllenhall, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson act circles around the entire movie, bringing to life a trio of compelling characters that often feel in need of a better overall film.
Jake Gyllenhaal grounds the film with the sort of dark and emotionally complex performance that has become a hallmark of his recent career. Michael Shannon embraces his bad cop role and is a lot of fun to watch, stopping just short of chewing up the scenery in portraying the sort of slightly off-kilter character he excels at playing. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is almost unrecognizable, delving headlong into the pure insanity of the film’s villain in a brilliant and menacing supporting role that commands attention, and garnered him a surprise Golden Globe award. Amy Adams is also decent, but she did better dramatic work in Arrival, and her character here feels underdeveloped and is largely unsympathetic.
Tom Ford continues to prove himself as a fashion designer with a genuine filmmaker’s eye, establishing a compellingly pulpy neo-noir vibe in the Texas scenes, which happens to be the best stuff in a film that frames its most interesting story around too much fluff. I’m also not sure what the overall metaphor that ties the two stories together is supposed to mean. The film still has enough great performances and entertaining moments to make it worth seeing, but it’s uneven as a whole.