By Leslie C. Halpern
Nocturnal Animals mixes a dark, brooding cinematic style with a thrilling tale of suspense.
From the outside, Susan (Amy Adams) leads the perfect life. She’s married to a handsome businessman (Armie Hammer), owns a fashionable Los Angeles art gallery, and lives in a gorgeous home filled with every imaginable luxury. However, as the story progresses, we see that her husband isn’t quite as successful or loving as he first appears, she loathes the “junk culture” reflected in the artwork she showcases, and her house is more like an isolating barrier than a personal retreat. In addition, a secret from her past might be catching up to her.
A Novel Titled Nocturnal Animals
One day at work, Susan receives a package from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t seen in nearly 20 years. He’s written a novel titled Nocturnal Animals and dedicated it to her. A note inside the package says he wants her to be the first person to read it, so he’s sending the bound manuscript before it goes to press. During their brief marriage in graduate school, one of the main arguments they had was about his writing. He claimed she wasn’t supportive enough, and she claimed he only wrote about himself, which limited his chances for success. This newest novel seems to bear no resemblance to himself or his life…or does it?
The novel recounts the horrifying tale of a man named Tony (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal), his red-headed wife (Isla Fisher), and daughter (Ellie Bamber) as they drive through rural Texas one night to visit family. After initial harassment on the highway by three local rednecks looking for some sadistic fun, the family becomes easy prey for this gang of lowlifes. Lead by an unstable and manipulative punk named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the men split up the family into two cars for a night of terror.
Similarities Between Life and Art
As she reads Edward’s novel, Susan can’t help but notice that the wife and daughter have red hair (like she and her daughter do), Tony seems a lot like Edward, and they (like the characters) both grew up in Texas. While revenge is an obvious factor in the novel, it also finds its way into more subtle scenes within the film, as well. People everywhere in her life seek revenge on others. Susan even purchased a piece of artwork about revenge and sought to punish an employee. As her past comes closer to the present and her own duplicity might be coming back to get her, she begins to rethink her thoughts about revenge – that maybe it’s not such a good thing after all.
The film jumps back and forth between Susan’s current life, her earlier marriage to Edward, and the story within the novel. Although the first few shifts in time and place may be disorienting, we soon realize that current Susan piles on the makeup and wears expensive clothes, while earlier Susan wears little or no makeup and favors solid color turtlenecks. Young Edward has no beard, while Tony (in the novel’s early scenes) is clean shaven.
A Multi-layered Story of Revenge
The title of the book within the film (and the movie itself) has a dual meaning, like nearly everything else in this impressive work. When they were young, Edward referred to Susan as a nocturnal animal because she’s always been an insomniac. The heinous crimes committed in rural Texas that night are perpetrated by animalistic men without morality or conscience.
A chilling multi-layered story of revenge, this film also boasts beautiful artistic cinematography with skillful edits, match dissolves, and eye-catching set design. Even more noteworthy, however, are outstanding performances by Gyllenhaal in a dual role as the jilted ex-husband and the novel’s fearful main character, Michael Shannon as an intense Texas police detective with an overriding desire for justice, Taylor-Johnson as a frighteningly deranged redneck from hell, and Adams as the sad-eyed, but cold-hearted art gallery owner.
- A violent novel written by her ex-husband appears to be a symbolic threat to a sad art gallery owner.
- Stars: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney
- Director-Writer: Tom Ford (based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright)
- Genre: Dramatic Thriller
- Run Time: 117 minutes
- MPAA Rating: R (for violence, menace, graphic nudity, and language)
- Additional Information: Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Venice International Film Festival