Nocturnal Animals (2016): The Story Within the Story

Any follow-up to ‘A Single Man’ was bound to be challenging, with bar set so high. Expectations are a horrible thing to have. Ironically, Tom Ford puts together an intricate tale about exactly that: expectations and love and mistakes and payback. It is captivating thanks to the lead trio of Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon. It works visually in spite of the occasional clichés. But it’s not an even story and the mediocre writing cannot be forgiven. Implicitly, Nocturnal Animals taints itself with the muck of pretentiousness. Yucky muck.

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Susan, unhappily wrapped in her glamorous life as director/board member of an art gallery, receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward. It’s a book about a family being assaulted on a lonely country road by a bunch of aggressive do-nothings. Susan begins to read it just as her own ideal marriage cracks at a distance and we are enveloped by the story within the story. One, in the cold and sterile home/life Susan has built for herself, the other in the violent, passionate, conflicted Western-ish decor of Edward’s novel. The parallels between the two are as plentiful, as they are visceral. Which is the best thing that can be said about Nocturnal Animals.

Amy Adams is such a strong presence on screen. She is particularly adept at portraying frailty, the kind that works as an undercurrent more than a dominating trait (see Arrival for even more nuance). Jake Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, atypically provides the ‘weak’ character, the dreamer, the one who is sensitive to a fault. It is in this study of what we might desire and how elusive it all is, how hard it is to find the right amount of something at any given time in another person that Nocturnal Animals strikes an honest chord. What carries the movie beyond the procedural ‘catch-the-bad-guys’ it sets up for itself, is an unpredictable, loose and enthralling Michael Shannon, who plays the law enforcement element. And Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t a half bad asshole either.

The problem is there are several filler characters as well, such as some of the party faces (even if they were mightily familiar, i.e. Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough), Armie Hammer’s role as the distant husband, or Laura Linney’s domineering mother-figure. It’s particularly a problem because, to me, they are the ones supposed to be the nocturnal animals, the predators. And in this commentary on a social divide, the movie falls short, because all it does is point caricatures of fingers at it. The uninspired writing, including some awful and pedantic dialogues, kept taking me out of where I wanted to be, enjoying the drama. And some fairly random scares did little to help with it either. The movie just can’t strike a consistent tone, trying to be a lot of things at the same time and inevitably failing.

So yes, I was disappointed. Tom Ford might not have undermined his stylistic approach, as he still manages to iron over the elements that don’t work so well by applying his particular aesthetic. But if it were not for some of the performances on screen, it would be really hard to recommend Nocturnal Animals – which is pretty damning. Well, expectations and all considered.

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