From the Archives: Nocturnal Animals review

From the Archives: Nocturnal Animals review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

Nocturnal Animals is probably just shiny trash, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Part Lost Highway, part Killer Joe, and filtered through a Verhoeven-esque lens, it’s clear that “shiny trash” is exactly the goal for director Tom Ford, who has assembled a dream team of scene-chewing actors to bring Austin Wright’s novel to life. Published in 1993 to little fanfare, Tony and Susan was almost immediately forgotten, and was eventually put out of print. It wasn’t until recent years that the novel was republished in the UK, resulting in a critical reassessment and a newfound popularity. This brought the novel back to the US, and as these things go, a movie was made. A very, very cool movie.

Amy Adams plays Susan, a bourgeois artist with a successful husband, a staff of servants, and a growing distaste for her own work. During an unexpectedly lonely weekend she receives a package containing a manuscript for ‘Nocturnal Animals’, a book written by her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). The book is dedicated to her and tells a pulpy, ragged tale about a man named Tony seeking vengeance for a brutal crime committed against his family. As Susan progresses through the manuscript she begins to see thematic parallels to the failed marriage between she and Edward, and as Tony seeks his vengeance, we, along with Susan, are forced to ask ourselves about the nature of regret in a world where second chances are not guaranteed.

The segments which depict Susan’s life occur in both present day and flashback, and the non-linear structure serves these portions well. When the film first opens, we are invited to relent to the stereotypes which are so often ascribed to people like Susan and her bougie ilk, while the flashbacks serve to explain what exactly brought her to be who she is. Adams plays the duality of youth vs. experience perfectly, and when these two clashing personalities meet at center, Susan feels like a real human being. Hats off to the makeup department for aging and de-aging Ms. Adams naturally, and with none of those icky prosthetics that never EVER work.

The story within a story could be a complete film in and of itself, and is presented as such, taking a different tone than the ‘real-world’ portions of the film. In these sequences Jake Gyllenhaal also plays the part of the novel’s protagonist (and author surrogate), Tony. He is helped along in his quest by a chain-smoking Texas cop (Michael Shannon, who is definitely from another planet where actors are crafted to perfection in laboratories), to capture a trio of dirtbags led by by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, terrifying). It’s a thrilling tale in a vacuum, and while the thematic connections to Susan and Edward’s real-life past are a bit on the nose, the trashy quality of the film makes that on-the-noseness essential. I wish to remain spoiler-free, so I’ll simply say this: the book narrative absolutely needed to shine in order for the film’s ending to have any sort of weight, which it very much does.


Adult thrillers of this style are few and far between, and whenever one comes down the pipeline, it’s easy to forgive the flaws simply by virtue of the film somehow finding a way to exist. Yet, I don’t think Nocturnal Animals needs to coast on such a caveat. It’s rock solid, even if it’s not suited to the broadest taste (the opening shots will likely shake the more straight-laced filmgoer). Tom Ford’s fashion industry sensibilities serve the material well, even offering a few pointed barbs at the very industry from which he emerged. In that sense, Nocturnal Animals would make a GREAT double feature with The Neon Demon . . . if you can stomach it.

This is Tom Ford’s second film, the first being 2009’s A Single Man. If it takes him another seven years to make his next film, Nocturnal Animals has me champing at the bit for whatever it may be.

Nocturnal Animals opens in Philly theaters today.

Official site.

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