I have been pretty excited for this movie ever since the cast was announced. Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are two of my favorite actors working today and I was eager to see what that collaboration would bring. What I didn’t anticipate (and probably should have) was that they would be overshadowed by a very confusing and sometimes disturbing narrative.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a successful but unfulfilled art gallery owner who’s just opened a new exhibit. Her husband (Armie Hammer) seems distant, skipping her gallery opening to her dismay. Her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her a manuscript for his new novel, which she reads urgently in her current husband’s weekend absence. As she reads the tale of Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal again), she flashes back to her own relationship with Edward. His is a brutal story of a man seeking justice for his wife and child’s rape and murder (Isla Fisher as the mother, Ellie Bamber as the daughter) at the hands of Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) with the help of terminally ill sheriff Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).
Parallels are drawn between Susan and Edward’s relationship and the horror Ray and his cronies inflict on Tony and his family. The story Edward writes is apparently “beautifully written” (Susan’s words) and motivates Susan to try and reconnect with Tony. The flash backs characterize Edward is a sensitive man who can’t quite get started as an artist, and Susan as a woman who wants to be satisfied with him but can’t. She is not an artist, but puts a lot of pressure on him to become one. Eventually she starts an affair with Hammer’s character and leaves him behind, perhaps preferring to be the one who gets dumped on rather than the dumper. In the present, it her creative endeavors that are found wanting as her husband doesn’t even care enough to show up at her gallery opening, let alone criticize it.
Edward’s novel is supposed to be very compelling, but I’d hazard a guess that that’s only because Susan feels such a strong personal connection to the writer and her own experiences. It’s a pretty conventional story, one with clear, despicable villains and a hero that is desperate to prove his masculinity through violence. Parts of it are pretty difficult to watch, though most of the worst of the violence is done through suggestion. The rest of the movie might be a bit mystifying, but this part of the story is painfully clear. The only real bright spot is Michael Shannon, doing great character work as the sheriff. He brings some unexpected humor and humanity to what could have been a tiresomely stereotypical character.
The ways the novel connects to “real life” is far trickier than the novel itself. When not in flashbacks, I’m not sure what Amy Adams’ character is really about. She wanders to various rooms in her giant, minimalistically styled house, gasping at various story developments and more often than not, dropping the manuscript to the ground. At any sudden movement in the novel, a gun being shot, someone being hit, sharp noises like that, we know Adams will pop out of the story. The cross-cutting here leaves something to be desired. When not reading, Susan attends a meeting a her gallery (which takes easy, though humorous, shots are her artsy-fartsy colleagues) and calls her husband. That’s about it. Most of the movie’s actual action takes place in Susan’s brain, and as such, she seems like a rather static character.
The flash back of Susan and Edward are a bit more interesting. You see how wronged Edward is by Susan, and perhaps what motivates him to write the story that he does. You can infer how he really didn’t know how to stand up to her, and eventually comes into his own as an artist (supposedly, without actually hearing any of his prose I can’t be one to judge but the narrative itself seems really pat) only when she leaves her. And he gets the ultimate revenge at the film’s close, abandoning her at their scheduled meeting as she once abandoned him in their marriage.
I get the one-to-one relationship between what happen to Edward and Susan and the story Edward writes. I normally love seeing the artistic process onscreen, how people take the raw material of their lives and shape them into art. Maybe because it was not in service of something larger, or if it was I missed it, but I didn’t really take to it here. I don’t know what point Ford was trying to make here about art, the superficiality of Susan’s current life, or how the characters feel about any of it. At the end of the movie I think I saw how the two stories connected, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was all for.
I don’t know how Nocturnal Animals stacks up to its source material, but I have a feeling the story may make more sense as a book. As for the film, the details seems to make sense but I’m not sure what it’s all in service of. The performances are all serviceable, with Michael Shannon as a standout. The cross-cutting between the novel and the frame narrative is a bit obvious, but otherwise technically the film is impressive. It doesn’t quite coalesce when all is said and done, but if you can stomach the violence in the first act you won’t necessarily mind trying to put it together.
Long story short: 3/4 stars
For Further Reading: