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April 25, 2017

Nocturnal Animals

by Franz Patrick


Nocturnal Animals (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Tom Ford’s second feature commands the necessary control and excellent timing to create a dramatic crime-thriller that is enigmatic but engaging, entertaining yet can also function as a metaphor for what it means to experience a loss. For a good stretch of “Nocturnal Animals,” based on the novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright, it is like standing on a precipice and in front us are portals to different realities. For about three to five minutes, we get a chance to peer into these portals and most impressive is that every one of them is compelling despite each one commanding a different feel or tone.

It is a most exciting work that might have benefited from having a running time of three hours—or perhaps longer. Notice that the third act feels somewhat rushed, despite a perfect-pitch final scene, and the characters we have come to know—whether he or she be a person from the past, a protagonist from a book, or the character with whom we define the story with—reach resolutions that feel forced rather than the material taking its time to present to us a more fluid next step or fate. Some movies deserve to be told in a slow, particular way. This film belongs in that category.

The screenplay is efficient with its characters. Most surprising to me is in how Ford handles the introduction of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a gallery owner who, at first glance, seems to have everything one could possibly want: excessive wealth, expensive clothes, a palatial home, a career in which she is in power, a good-looking partner (Armie Hammer). But notice how the director underlines the emptiness of luxury. Susan does not interact with her clothes nor does she seem to enjoy wearing them. She looks good in them, but a closer inspection reveals she is more like a mannequin than someone who appreciates or loves what she has on. When she walks around her living space, silence is deafening. There is no laughter or silly conversations heard from a few feet away. Shadows dominate every corner. It is like being in a museum. No one speaks above more than a few decibels. Even her husband seems annoyed with her, certainly neglectful of her needs.

There is a sadness to Susan that is fascinating and we wonder if she will be able to claw her way out of her silent desperation. I already know Adams is a supremely skillful performer, capable to communicating paragraphs with silence. Here, I was impressed with how she relishes every scene she is in. We can feel her character always thinking, evaluating—even when Susan is lost in her thoughts. It is an intelligent, calculated performance and without such a strong core, the picture might have fallen over its own ambitions. The story after all, takes place in the present, the past, and a fictional (or is it?) universes. Susan receives the manuscript for a novel her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) had written. She finds it to be such a page-turner, she doesn’t get any sleep. I was right there with her; I craved to know what would happen next. Will justice be served cold in West Texas?

“Nocturnal Animals,” I think, is about grieving people. Notice that each fleshed out character is unhappy about his or her life, that the life she now has is the life he never wanted to have. The common theme is that life has a cruel sense of humor sometimes. And that bitter ending may not work for a lot of people but it is loyal to the film’s central ideas. Clearly, the film is made by an artist who values making a point over making the audience feel good. But I feel good when an artist delivers what is necessary to leave a lasting impression.

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