Movie Review | Nocturnal Animals
Movie summary: A wealthy art gallery owner is haunted by her ex-husband's novel, a violent thriller she interprets as a symbolic revenge tale. (IMDb)
Okay, the very first thing to mention about Nocturnal Animals is that the opening credits - featuring obese women dancing nude - have nothing to do with the rest of the story, at best serving as a background details for Susan's (Amy Adams) current state of mind as the movie begins. Just be forewarned before going in - the credits aren't short either!
As for the movie itself, it's divided up into three parts: the first is the present day, where an unfulfilled Susan is practically sleepwalking through her loveless marriage and unsatisfying job when she receives a manuscript for a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), which she spends the rest of the movie reading and reacting to.
The second part is the story of said novel, also named Nocturnal Animals - which is also how Edward used to refer to Susan. This story takes up the majority of the running time and with good reason, being an allegory for how their relationship fell apart and acting as a form of revenge for Edward, who has avoided speaking to her for years.
The third part is the smallest, being flashbacks to how Susan and Edward first reunited as adults, before marrying - an act that did not please Susan's mother (played by Laura Linney) at all. There is a mini arc here, also showing how the marriage ended, but it serves more as a way of conveying context for the actions we see imagined by Susan as happening in Edward's novel.
Nocturnal Animals does jump back and forth between the three settings, but does colour-code events for audience convenience, much like Greta Gerwig's Little Women. Events in the present day are cold and sterile; the story of the novel is bright and over-exposed; while the flashbacks are lit naturally, which means you shouldn't get too lost.
Then again, the only thing that might cause confusion is that Jake Gyllenhaal also plays the lead character in the novel, Tony. Again, the book is about how the relationship between Edward and Susan broke down, so it's not much of a surprise that the lead character is effectively an avatar of the author - even less so once we see Susan criticising Edward for being unable to write about anything other than himself.
In the novel, Tony is married to Laura (Isla Fisher, who bears a passing resemblance to Adams) and has a daughter named India (Ellie Bamber), who unfortunately suffer a fate all too typical of women in fiction written by men - they are raped and murdered, left lying outside in each other's arms to be found by Tony and Lieutenant Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).
A lot of people hold this against the movie, but I think it's an intentional black mark against Edward, showing he's not that much nicer a person - if at all - than Susan. We do get to see that he doesn't take any criticism of his writing well at all, so it's not exactly a huge leap to imagine him not doing female characters justice in his writing. The biggest problem is that this scene comes much further into the movie, far after the horrible events in question, so many may already hold a dim view of the film before getting to see this side of things.
The second problem with how the women are treated is partially an unfortunate side effect of the excellent cinematography, but also how their bodies are treated. First off, let me just say that Nocturnal Animals is a gorgeous movie that looks incredible from start to finish - it is a genuine treat for the eyes that absolutely must be seen in the highest resolution on the biggest screen you can.
The issue is that you have such horrific events that are really bloody hard to watch even as the family are accosted before anything overtly violent happens, that the discovery of these two beautiful women lying nude in each other's arms and appearing unblemished aside from some dirt on their bodies doesn't really help convey the nightmare they would've experienced.
We do get to see a bloody wound on Laura's head when Andes inspects the bodies to confirm the deaths, but it just feels too clean and bordering on sexual. This latter aspect is only reinforced when Susan contacts her own daughter (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), who the movie cuts to lying naked in an identical pose to India - albeit with her also-nude boyfriend. This visual comparison is unquestionably on director Tom Ford here, and is definitely uncomfortable to see - I wouldn't blame in the slightest any women being disgusted by these particular images and how they compare and contrast with each other.
From this point on, Tony and Andes attempt to track down the men responsible in an attempt to find some kind of justice for the murdered women. I'll stop here before spoiling how the plot unfolds, but let's just say that Edward doesn't use just Laura as a stand-in for Susan in his story - there's another character who Tony comes to despise that fits far more closely with the author's view of his ex-wife.
Apart from the poor treatment of the women by Edward and the director, the only other problem I had with Nocturnal Animals is that - Laura and India aside - there aren't really any other notable characters who you could genuinely say are likeable and/or innocent. Shannon's Andes comes closest and is probably the most reasonable of them all, but you'd be hard-pressed to say that he's a genuinely good person, even if Shannon delivers another fantastic performance.
There's one saving grace in that nobody gets a happy ending in any of the settings, so you don't feel cheated about bad people getting away with something they shouldn't. Everyone suffers, regardless of whether they deserve it or not and it's almost-but-not-quite satisfying to see everyone get some form of comeuppance.
Despite these issues, I still enjoyed Nocturnal Animals immensely, with so many of the cast putting in stellar performances that you should at least be able to appreciate the actors' efforts even if the story leaves a sour taste in your mouth. And again, it's an incredibly good-looking movie that anyone should also be able to admire for its visuals.
Nocturnal Animals is a very, very good movie that recovers from a problematic and uncomfortable opening to deliver an acting masterclass from the talent involved. The story doesn't have many twists, more like layers of context being slowly exposed as we learn more about Edward and Susan's relationship, often resulting in scenes that are actually intentionally uncomfortable and utterly riveting to watch.