By Will Ashton (Two Beers) –
Some movies hit you like a thunderstrike. Others wash over you in gentle waves. But some movies leave you in a daze, demanding that you sit there, transfixed, and contemplate what you’ve seen. Are they good? Bad? A little bit of both? It’s really a case-by-case situation, but one thing’s for certain: Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, the infamous fashion designer’s stylish, unsettling, vicious and disquieting directorial follow-up to 2009’s excellent A Single Man, is one of those films. Here’s another certainty: it’ll leave you talking, whether good or bad. Nocturnal Animals is not a film with easy answers or conventional narrative tactics, but it’s a movie that demands a reaction from you. Such reaction, however, is all your own.
A cinematic conundrum told in two parts, Nocturnal Animals focuses in part on art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a wealthy woman with a luxurious life that’s as visually radiant as it is immensely dull. On the verge of bankruptcy and with a second, younger husband Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) that’s as absent as he is unfaithful, Susan wanders her spacious, immensely empty house hazed and desolate. Her nights are spent restless and emotionally preoccupied, as she wonders quietly what happened with her last marriage to unpublished novelist Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), and if she left him prematurely due to his failed professional growth. It doesn’t help that she recently received an unexpected package from her former lover/ex-husband, one containing a newly-penned manuscript titled Nocturnal Animals that was deeply inspired by their terminal relationship, according to an accompanying letter.
From there, we’re whisked into Edward’s novel, which follows Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal), a peaceful family man that finds danger on a West Texas highway close to midnight from three local no-good ruffians, Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Lou (Karl Glusman), and Turk (Robert Aramayo). Pulled over, threatened, beaten, and left powerless while his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are kidnapped against his will. Left in the company of Lou, who eventually abandons him in the middle of nowhere, Tony escapes the returning Ray and Turk to seek consultation from the local Detective Bobby Andes (an outstanding Michael Shannon), who’ll offer more than his locally-appointed services as the case becomes more entangled in betrayal, violence, and sought redemption.
Nocturnal Animals is, at once, a beautiful and ugly film, and one that weirdly feels both meaningful and empty. Shot wonderfully, if sometimes vacantly-to-a-fault, and accompanied with expectedly splendid production designs, costuming, and art direction, it’s an easy film to enjoy on the eye — until it’s not, of course. Yet, it’s often the more vicious, hard-hitting moments, ones that echo David Lynch as often as Cormac McCarthy, that resonate more thoroughly. But is it malicious with value, or is it ruthless driven by unredeemable masochism? To its credit and detriment, Nocturnal Animals offers no easy answer there, to some’s satisfaction and other’s frustration, but boy does it put you through a ride in the process. It’s a visually extravagant odyssey, one that’s painful and unforgiving, but also stunning and wonderfully provoking. It wins as many fans as it earns detractors, and there’s an argument to be made that it wants to be hated by the common majority — for at least it’ll weed out those it knows won’t appreciate its cruel intentions.
If appreciated on face value, it’s easy to celebrate the performances. Adams and Gyllenhaal aren’t providing the best work of their respective careers, but they know how to dazzle the luscious screen. Hammer’s usually stiff manner is put to appropriate (and rightfully inappropriate) use in his small role, and Taylor-Johnson proves, once again, that character acting is more his speed than, say, the role of Bland White Male Lead™ in the otherwise exhilarating Godzilla (2014). But it’s truly Shannon, as always, that steals this movie’s wondrous spirit and tames it with his intensive, straight-shooting black eyes. Between his husky, whiskey-funneled drawl, all-consuming cigarette addiction, well-trimmed mustache, and hunched frame, he’s as elusive as he is bizarrely enticingly and soothing. Shannon blends Nocturnal Animals‘ love of posh and trash with perfect precision, and he’s often the one that knows best what he strives to accomplish with this uneven, remorseless, and typically fearless collision of senses and styles.
Like a decadent art gallery piece found in the middle of the display room, you can often admire and appreciate Nocturnal Animals, but it’s hard to let it sink deep. It doesn’t feel calculated, nor does it feel lifeless, but it is cold, uninviting, and oppressive at its very worst. Ford, for better or worse, made the film he envisioned, striving to not let it get overtaken by general expectations and lofty high-mindedness. It’s a goofier, punchier, bleaker, and more vengeful film than his last, and A Single Man wasn’t necessary the feel-good movie of its respective year. It’s as campy as it is solemn, and that can sometimes play like vinegar found in orange juice. It’s instigating, and sometimes reaching, but it’s not entirely unsuccessful. And yet, it leaves you a little unshaken, which seems to be its biggest flaw. It can’t help but feel like it’s missing a few key ingredients, maybe even a few extra spices, to really let it run deep in your veins. As it stands, it’s interesting to the eye, texturized in its design, and it’s not allergic to controversy, but it’s hard to say if it is actually all that inspiring, or if it’s a lot of fuss and radiance, and not rich on nuanced subtext.
Nocturnal Animals will not leave you quiet. It’ll rouse you, excite you, confuse you, maybe anger you. But it won’t leave you empty-handed, for what it’s worth. It’s been over a month since I saw this film, and I still don’t know what to say about Ford’s latest in full. Whether that’s the best or worst thing I can say about this artistic achievement is left unclear, and that might honestly remain the case for a little while longer. But in any case, it’s a film built with flair and fury, disdain and delicacy. It will leave you with something or nothing, depending on how you choose to look into the glass. But it won’t leave you unmoved, nor desolate. Appropriately enough, it’ll keep your mind rattling, hopefully well into the late, endlessly searching night.
Nocturnal Animals (2016) Drinking Game
Do a Shot: during that radiant slow-motion opening. It deserves a toast.
Take a Drink: every time Susan looks out with an almost-aimlessly blank stare.
Take a Drink: every time Bobby takes a drag from his cigarette.
Take a Drink: anytime anyone says/does/wears something truly peculiar.
Take a Drink: every time Susan has an epiphany aloud.
Do a Shot: whenever Tony finds the red couch. You might need it.