Movie Review : Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Tom Ford's latest movie Nocturnal Animals begins with a montage of three solid minutes of naked obese women mercilessly shaking their junk at the screen in slow motion. It doesn't have anything to do whatsoever with the movie. It's just there, daring you to keep watching. Needless to say, I loved it. Nocturnal Animals is not quite the slick, but standard martial breakdown thriller is appears to be. It's a crass, provocative and horribly bent movie with great artistic ambition. If someone would've told me that killer highway suspense and metafiction could seamlessly blend in a movie, I would've laughed them out of the room. But it's exactly what Nocturnal Animals is. It's bonkers and I loved it because it was bonkers. My favorite viewing in 2017, so far.
So, Nocturnal Animals is the story of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a wealthy and cynical art gallery owner in Los Angeles who receives a novel manuscript from her estranged ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) after nineteen years of silence. It is titled Nocturnal Animals and dedicated to her. The novel's protagonist Tony Hastings (also Jake Gyllenhall) *wink* *wink* is forced off the highway by thugs who kidnap his wife and daughter for obscure reasons. Stranded and hurt in West Texas, Tony will go through whatever it takes to survive. Now, Susan rekindles with all sorts of unpleasant emotions while reading Edward's novel and reminisces on the events that lead to their divorce. And the more she reminisces, the more sense the novel (and the context in which she received it) makes.
This movie is fucking LOADED with interesting ideas. It may not be all evident if you're not familiar with metafiction, but Nocturnal Animals is also a great example of how it works and why it's awesome. Metafiction is, basically, a narrative that questions the relationship between reality and fiction by drawing attention to its fictional nature. Metafiction is self-conscious fiction you'll often hear Academics say. Nocturnal Animals uses that concept to make its audience paranoid about the symbolism in Edward's novel, which is gradually reveals through Susan's unpleasant feelings and conflicting thoughts about her traumatic divorce.
Nothing in Edward's novel is coincidental. Everything addresses Susan directly. I also suspect nothing is coincidental in Austin Wright's novel Nocturnal Animals is based on. I haven't read it, but it's how metafiction works. Every layer is a puzzle that dares your to solve it. What makes Nocturnal Animals so much fun is that it uses enticing tropes that could've existed independently to build its puzzle. Edward Sheffield's highway thriller Nocturnal Animals could've worked on its own although it would've been deprived of its extra layer of meaning that made it so goddamn satisfying. Nocturnal Animals is definitely NOT a movie to "switch your brain off" to. It's just not how the experience is structured.
I usually don't discuss actors performances in movies because I prefer discussing what the movie is about, but standout performances were so critical to Nocturnal Animals' success that it deserves mention. I also believe counterintuitive casting was an integral part of Tom Ford's creative process. For example, I didn't think Amy Adams had it in her to play a wealthy and neurotic middle-aged woman because she's always typecasted as this blue-collar type. The single mom, the lonely idealistc, etc. Turns out she is absolutely perfect as Susan Morrow because she looks real. In fact, Adams' inherent "realness" mixed with the artificial nature of her character transcend what would otherwise be a stereotype.
The unsung star of Nocturnal Animals is Michael Shannon, though. Typecasted as disturbed men, Shannon embodies law and order in this movie and man, is he fucking good or what? I've never met any Texas cops in my life, but Shannon's Bobby Andes lived up to every urban legend I heard about them. Michael Shannon is scary when he playing lunatics, but he's absolutely terrifying when his characters know what they're doing. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, known for playing babyfaced good guys, is also perfect as Ray Marcus, the scourge of the desert. I started suspecting Tom Ford of making this movie only to please me when my homegirl Jena Malone made a cameo appearance. At that point, I just threw my hands in the air and waved them like I just didn't care.
Nocturnal Animals is a movie about the creative process. It's easy to forget it and think it's a highway thriller because of Tom Ford's user-friendly approach to metafiction, but it would be missing the point. The most important character in the movie is Edward Sheffield and he barely even appears on screen. It's something to keep in mind when you're watching it because Tom Ford definitely tries to divert your attention from it. Nocturnal Animals is a crass, boundless and creative metafictional thriller about the power of narratives. If that doesn't sound enticing to you, ask yourself that question: why do people write fiction? Why are people interested in fiction in the first place? Is there a greater purpose to it than the audience's delight and entertainment? Nocturnal Animals has its own answers to these questions and these answers were music to my ears.