Press "Enter" to skip to content

Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Directed by: Tom Ford

Premise: An art gallery owner (Amy Adams) receives a novel manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). As she reads the book she has flashbacks to their marriage and comes to some realizations about her life.

What Works: Nocturnal Animals is a frame narrative, meaning that the film contains a story-within-a-story. The outer narrative, which generally corresponds with “real life,” is the story of Susan, a high society gallery owner who lives a lavish but empty lifestyle. The inner narrative of Nocturnal Animals is the plot of the novel written by Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), Susan’s first husband. The novel is a genre thriller in which a family driving through rural Texas is run off the road and assaulted by a band of hoodlums. Nocturnal Animals juxtaposes the two stories and impressively intertwines them. This is an excellent example of a complex story structure. The film leaps between the inner and outer stories and it plays events out of sequence. Despite the complexity of the narrative, it is always clear which story we are in and where in the temporal sequence these events take place. The frame narrative of Nocturnal Animals is not there simply as a stylistic choice. This film is about the relationship between life and art and it has some provocative things to say about that. The filmmakers do something counterintuitive with the production design. The outer frame, which ought to be real life, is highly stylized and has the glossy and plastic look of a fashion magazine while the inner frame, the novel, is gritty and naturalistic. This juxtaposition suggests a couple of things. First, it implies that the stories we tell and the art we create might be more real and more vivid than our actual lives. Secondly, Nocturnal Animals takes a swipe at what is considered prestigious art. Susan has just overseen the opening of a new show at a chic gallery and she hates it but the content of this pulp novel is much more affecting. The film implies that the way we distinguish between high and low art might be all wrong. The inner narrative of Nocturnal Animals is frequently the best material in the movie and it provides the cast with opportunities for some notable performances. Jake Gyllenhaal is quite good as the father whose family is assaulted, Michael Shannon steals several scenes as a morally ambiguous detective, and Aaron Taylor Johnson is creepy and threatening as the leader of the gang of outlaws.

What Doesn’t: The interior story of Nocturnal Animals, the plot of the novel, is much more compelling than the outer story of Susan’s life. Her biography is somewhat cliché; she’s a high society lady married to a businessman who spends all of his time at work and is probably cheating on her. The clichés are to the movie’s point that fiction can be more interesting and engrossing than reality. But the gallery owner’s life is not especially vivid and most of the characters in Nocturnal Animals are relatively one note. Edward in particular remains a distant figure. Tony, his alter ego in the novel, is deeper than the rest of the characters but the differences between Edward and Tony, if any, are unclear. It may be that they are one in the same. But if the novel is intended to be a metaphor of the breakup of the marriage, the filmmakers strangely choose to have actor Jake Gyllenhaal play both Edward and Tony while Amy Adams remains in the exterior narrative and Isla Fisher (who resembles Adams) is cast as the fictional wife. Ultimately, the filmmakers don’t provide enough detail about the lives of the people in the outer story to make the connections between the narratives as meaningful as they could be.

Bottom Line: Nocturnal Animals is an ambitious and provocative film. It’s a movie that interrogates the relationship between reality and the stories we tell and ultimately questions how we judge what qualifies as art. This is sophisticated storytelling that raises interesting artistic questions while telling an accessible and engaging tale of revenge.

Episode: #626 (December 18, 2016)