Nocturnal Animals (2016) – Neo-noir and (relationship) drama in one movie

Tom Ford’s long-awaited follow-up to his much-acclaimed debut A Single Man took some time to come out but now consolidates his visual and narrative skills.

He starts off his movie by introducing us to Susan (Amy Adams), who works at an art gallery (exhibiting the naked obese ladies that have been so off-putting in the opening credits). She lives a generally unhappy life due to her estrangement from her husband (Armie Hammer) and her lack of self-expression in her job. Then she is sent a manuscript of the same title as this movie by her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t seen in almost two decades. Attached to his first novel was a note, dedicating the book to her as she inspired him to write it. Susan starts reading and the second layer begins unfolding itself. It is a gripping neo-noir tale set in Texas, which could have been a movie on its own. This is definitely the most riveting story thread but is very aptly interwoven with the other two narratives, making Susan’s reading of the story so intense.

As it is hard to talk about the subsequent progression of events without spoiling the effect it has on the viewer, I will continue with some general comments and resume the plot discussion in the spoiler section.

The movie impresses with amazing performances of the main cast. Amy Adams had an extremely successful year 2016 with two of her finest performances. Too bad that neither her performance in Arrival nor this performance received any major awards acclaim. But honestly, if anyone still doesn’t know her and claims to know their movie stuff, they cannot be taken seriously. Although she has to deliver rather subtle emotions, her reactions to the text perfectly mirror the audience’s and convincingly reveal her character’s inner world. Jake Gyllenhaal continues his series of phenomenal performances in the past few years and arguably has the most difficult job in this movie: Appearing in a double role as Susan’s ex and as the protagonist of the book, he has to cope with the emasculation which he has to endure in both story threads he appears in. But the standout performances are Michael Shannon as the sheriff working Tony’s (JG) case in the text and Aaron Taylor-Johnson with a career-best performance, which deservedly won him the Globe. Shannon excels in a very controlled and also intimidating performance. Taylor-Johnson surpasses his decent gigs as Quicksilver in Ultron and Kick-Ass by leagues and proves his talent as a disturbing “sick fuck” that you might have seen a number of times but that has seldom been as effective.

Taylor-Johnson giving Gyllenhaal’s character a hard time, Copyright: UPI
Shannon unusually intimidating, Copyright: UPI

The movie’s score is at times also very unnerving, which definitely adds to the tense atmosphere. A minor point of criticism is Ford’s focus on aesthetics: Even though the movie generally is one of the prettier movies of 2016, the display of all the luxury in the art circle Susan keeps company with sometimes makes it hard to emotionally relate to her. It may be a critique on the artificiality of this world but it also alienates some viewers, which makes it hard to refute the often mentioned criticism of “all style, no substance” with this fashion designer turned writer-director.

However, the more we learn about Susan’s relationship with Edward and the more the novel progresses everything starts fitting together and this unfolds several possible readings, culminating in a well-timed ending scene. I certainly recommend this movie, its cleverly crafted script and strong performances alone suffice to make it an intense and thought-provoking watch.


Spoiler section:

Back to the point Susan starts reading the manuscript: Tony is driving at night with his wife and daughter in the car and they are forced to stop and are molested by three shady guys, led by ATJ’s character Ray. After some creepy acts of intimidation, they abduct Tony’s wife and daughter and abandon Tony in the desert. He later has to learn they were raped and killed. The casting for this story thread is very decisive as we experience the novel through Susan’s eyes. As she knows he writes about himself, she projects him onto Tony. For the benefit of the audience and to suggest the connection Susan herself only later assumes, the wife (Isla Fisher, who is often confused with Amy Adams by many) and daughter bear an uncanny resemblance to their real equivalents in the real storyline.

Sheriff Andes (MS) investigates his case and initially doesn’t seem to care all that much. However, over the course of the investigation the two form a very intriguing bond and Andes is added an almost fanatic determination to catch these psychos (we later learn he doesn’t give a shit anymore about legal consequences as he’s terminally ill). The script nicely parallels the weak Tony, who couldn’t stop this tragedy from happening, with the Edward appearing in flashbacks that show the viewer how he and Susan met each other and why they broke up. A specifically well-arranged montage parallels Edward seeing Susan leaving the abortion clinic and Tony breaking down and hating himself for not being able to protect his family. Then he mans up and kills Ray, dying himself in the process. This can clearly be interpreted as the death of the old version of Tony/Edward and the emergence of a stronger one.

Whether Edward sent Susan the book to make her feel guilty as a kind of revenge story (which the movie clearly suggests, given the visual cues (red couch) and some symbolism(Susan cutting her hand as she opens the package with the manuscript)) or whatever else his motivations might be remains the subject of discussion and interpretation. Similarly, one could argue about the reasons for not meeting Susan at the restaurant. Does he want her to suffer, is he actually dead (like Tony) or does he just want to prove her wrong about him, his personality and his talent?

The film leaves that open to interpretation and it indeed lingered in my mind for a while. It deals with interesting questions about guilt, revenge, masculinity and creativity but slightly lacks emotional impact.

© by Universal Pictures International, all images taken from their website

shorter German version: Nocturnal Animals überzeugt mit einem fantastischen Drehbuch, das 3 Handlungsstränge nicht nur balanciert, sondern auch geschickt miteinander verwoben hat und keiner davon langweilig ist, sowie einem starken Cast. Amy Adams hatte ein fantastisches Jahr 2016 mit Arrival und diesem Film und spielt recht subtil, aber dafür sehr überzeugend und spiegelt beim Lesen schön die Reaktionen der Zuschauer ab. Jake Gyllenhaal hat vielleicht den anspruchsvollsten Job mit seinen zwei Rollen und macht das, wie schon seit Jahren, wieder ziemlich gut. Aber die heimlichen Gewinner sind die Nebendarsteller, denn was Aaron Taylor-Johnson und Michael shannon hier abliefern ist von beiden unerwartet und stark. ATJ spielt nach seinen sympathischen Superhelden (Kick-Ass, Quicksilver) einen psychopathischen Charakter mit einer solchen Eindringlichkeit, dass er einem im Kopf bleibt (und natürlich wegen der Düsterheit der Rolle bei den Oscars übergangen wurde). Shannon ist ungewöhnlich einschüchternd als Sheriff und hat gerade gegen Ende eine sehr interessante Beziehung mit Gyllenhaals Charakter.
Tom Ford, dem als Mode-Designer ja oft vorgeworfen wird, dass er ein All-Style-No-Substance-Regisseur sei, inszeniert sehr ästhetische Bilder (wobei die Darstellung des Luxus-Künstler-Upper-Class-Lebens etwas die Identifikation behindert) und die Wechsel zwischen den Handlungssträngen in seinem Drehbuch sind gut getimed, sodass man Gedankenanstöße und mehrere Deutungsmöglichkeiten entstehen. Auch der Soundtrack ist gut, weil er die beunruhigende Atmosphäre effektiv untermalt.
Kommt in meine Top 10 des Jahres 2016 und ist ein effektiver Thriller/Drama, der zum Nachdenken anregt und eine Weile im Kopf bleibt.


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