“Nocturnal Animals” Movie Review


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     In a Hollywood landscape mostly devoid of original ideas, it’s refreshing to watch a film like writer/director Tom Ford’s completely engrossing and ultra stylish “Nocturnal Animals”, a thriller which could easily have been the work of Alfred Hitchcock, but also may be the most thought provoking movie plot since Nolan’s “Inception”.  Ford, whose only previous directing credit came in the form of the 2009 Colin Firth starrer “A Single Man”, would certainly make both Hitchcock and frequent Hitchcock imitator Brian DePalma quite envious with his execution, but it’s not long before the viewer realizes the story isn’t going to proceed like so many other thrillers have.  For those who consistently tell people the book is better than movie, here is your chance to see just how a novel might play out in someone’s head, scene by scene.

     Susan (Amy Adams) is an art gallery owner who wears the fact she is unhappy with her current existence directly on her sleeve.  After a truly bizarre opening night for her gallery’s latest artistic display (I’ll leave it at that.), she receives a letter from her ex husband of some 20 years earlier, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), accompanied by a manuscript for a novel he has just completed.  The letter announces the completion of his first book, and asks if Susan would read it and provide her opinion.  Flashback scenes indicate their marriage was short lived, and may have ended due in part to Susan not believing in Edward as a writer, but the details provided at that point in the film are still cloudy as to what exactly the circumstances were.  In present day, Susan is married to her husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), of whom she has clearly grown apart from.  Ford ensures we know from the beginning as to the state of their marriage with Hutton sometimes not coming to bed at all and often not calling after his arrival in various cities on business trips.

     What sets Ford’s work here apart is where he takes us after the initial scenes paint a grim picture for Susan and Hutton’s marriage.  When a person reads a book, they visualize every page in their mind and at its conclusion have a very thorough image of what they believe the author is trying to convey through the use of those words.  Any avid book reader will tell you they have a very clear expectation as to how a movie based on a book is going to look visually, and here Ford takes us on that journey through the mind of Susan as she reads each page of Edwards manuscript.  The result is a movie taking place within another movie.  Neither has anything to do with the other at face value, but as both stories move forward, you get the feeling somehow they will both intersect at some point, not necessarily in a literal sense, but through the emotions brought forth by the book and Susan’s current life.

     Edward’s book, titled “Nocturnal Animals”, begins with a family driving through West Texas heading towards a vacation destination on a dark desolate highway.  As the reader, Susan projects the story’s main character, Tony, as Edward (thus meaning it is again Gyllenhaal on screen.) with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher), who as a red head may be a subconscious projection of herself, as well as their daughter India (Ellie Bamber), who also resembles Susan and Hutton’s daughter.  Essentially, you have Susan reading a book written by her ex husband and visualizing the family she believes they may have had someday as the couple and their daughter begin the journey through West Texas.  But then the story takes a horrible turn.  As they drive on that aforementioned dark highway, another vehicle pulls up next to them as the occupants begin to taunt them and ultimately run them off the road.  

     The three nefarious thugs exit their car and surround the Hasting’s vehicle as Laura and India become terrified and Tony, as the man in the situation, seems unsure how he will protect his family.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Kick-Ass”) plays the leader of the group, Ray, in what has to be one of the most convincingly evil villain turns I’ve seen in years.  He’s not necessarily channeling any particular character of the past, though you may conjure images of the bad guys in “Deliverance”, which this sequence will remind you of considering Tony and his family are from the city and are passing through territory occupied by people who are well, different.  To the horror of all involved, Laura and India are kidnapped and Tony is left in the middle of nowhere after being badly beaten.  The next day, the case is investigated by a local detective named Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), but the effect on all involved becomes more horrific than any of them could possibly have ever imagined.

     Which brings us back to Susan.  What exactly were the reasons for her and Edward’s breakup?  She asks one of her co-workers about mid way through the film “Do you ever feel like your life has turned into something you never intended?” when speaking about her ex husband, and there are plenty of clues provided that she may have done something horrible to him.  Could Edward’s book and the terrible things experienced by its characters serve as a sort of metaphor for what Susan did to Edward when their relationship ended?  Or is he merely wanting to show her he had the chops to be a successful writer all along?  That’s what Ford’s film does to you.  It makes you think from a number of different angles long after you leave the theater.  If Edward did intend for the Tony character in his book to reflect the physical and mental anguish he went through when Susan left him, than imagine the multiple layers of his character alone.  Ford’s screenplay, based on a novel by Austin Wright, gives all of the characters a certain complexity through dialogue, but also how he shoots them in every scene.  We don’t always know exactly what they may be thinking, but we want to know, because all of them appear to have quite a juicy story to tell.  GRADE: A