Note: This reviews contains plot spoilers. Proceed with caution if you have not yet seen the film.
Nocturnal Animals, director Tom Ford's adaptation of Austin Wright's 1993 novel Tony and Susan, is a bleak, but fascinating, rumination on relationships, betrayal, loss, and vengeance. It is a rare film that self-consciously matches physical and emotional violence, suggesting that both are fundamentally detrimental to the human condition and lead to nothing if not absolute devastation. It constantly plays with the most comfortable notions of catharsis, toying with our incessantly reinforced desire to see justice done by watching those who have done harm get their just desserts, but then flips the table on us by showing that vengeance is hollow and only contributes to the cycle of violence, whether it be physical or interpersonal. It is, in its way, a kind of intellectual exercise in the manipulation of style to make a sharp moral point, something that Stanley Kubrick probably would have admired (and those who find Kubrick's films too cold, calculating, and brutal will likely make the same charges against Ford).
Like the novel, it is composed of two interwoven stories, one "real" that involves emotional violence, and one "fictional" that involves physical violence. The "real" story involves Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a Los Angeles art gallery owner who is married to a wealthy, but distant and unfaithful businessman named Hutton (Armie Hammer). One day she receives a package containing a manuscript for a novel called Noctural Animals that was written by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she divorced years ago due to her growing disillusionment with his literary aspirations and lack of income; in other words, she left him for the most shallow and materialistic of reasons, which is reflected in her current life of slick, hip affluence and emotional dislocation. The fact that Edward dedicated the book to her and titled it with his pet name for her suggests that the book is somehow connected to her and their past, and she finds herself staying up nights reading it in anticipation of his visiting Los Angeles.
The novel-within-the-film, the "fictional" story, is a harrowing tale about a conventionally meek husband and father named Tony Hastings (again played by Gyllenhaal) who is driving all night across West Texas with his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher), and his teenage daughter, India (Ellie Bamber). In a sequence that combines the horrors of Duel (1971) and Deliverance (1972), Tony and his family are victimized on the isolated rural highway by a car of leering rednecks-Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Lou (Karl Glusman), and Turk (Robert Aramayo)-who eventually cause their cars to bump into each other and force Tony off the road. Ray, the leader of the group, toys with Tony, as he senses his fundamental nonviolence and discomfort with confrontation, before eventually directing the others to abduct Laura and India and drive Tony to the end of a deserted road and dump him. Working the next day with a police detective named Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), Tony retraces the events of the previous evening, which leads them to discover his worst nightmare: the naked bodies of his wife and daughter, both of whom have been raped and murdered.
Tony is understandably wracked with grief, despair, and guilt since his general inaction the night before led to the abduction, torment, and murder of his entire family. He kept assuming that the worst wouldn't happen, and now that it has, he feels completely cut adrift. A year passes, and Detective Andes contacts him, eventually leading back to a confrontation with the men who destroyed his life, particularly Ray, who is in every way Tony's opposite: vicious, violent, and completely lacking in human decency. There is no attempt to make him in sympathetic or complex. He is, in a word, monstrous, which is why Ray's violent retribution against him, aided and abetted by Andes (who has discovered he is dying of cancer and is therefore willing to step outside the law if it means his sense of justice will be done), would seem to be satisfying. And, in a way, it is, but it is followed immediately with more punishment for Tony, whose decision to sink to the level of those who did him harm leads to his unwitting self-destruction.
On the face of it, the frame story involving Susan Morrow and Edward's novel about Tony would seem to have almost nothing to do with each other, and the way Tom Ford, in his sophomore effort following the highly regarded A Single Man (2009), stages them, they feel like entirely different films that keep interrupting each other. Yet, that is a fundamental part of the film's effectiveness, as we are forced to find the links between a distressing story about marital discord and betrayal and a traumatic thriller about abduction and murder. In both stories the ultimate victim is the family: As we eventually discover, Susan left Edward, partially out of pressure from her wealthy socialite mother (Laura Linney) who didn't think that Edward was good (that is, wealthy) enough for Susan, and aborted their child to ensure a smooth divorce proceeding. Thus, in Edward's eyes (who we only see in flashbacks of mostly happier times), her betrayal of him was a kind of devastating violence that stole from him both his wife and his child, resulting in a profound loss similar to the one that Tony suffers within his novel. In this respect, Susan is both Laura Hastings, the murdered wife, and the Ray/Lou/Turk triumvirate who ruthlessly and for inexplicable reasons outside of cruelty for its own sake, murdered her.
Noctural Animals is thus built around interwoven experiences of absolute devastation-not just Edward and Tony's loss, but eventually Susan's, as she recognizes through reading Edward's novel and reflecting on the empty life she chose that she has done more harm than good to herself and others. She fully realizes her mistakes-what has been feeding her ennui for some time-but it is too late. The film's final nail is her attempt to reconnect with Edward, a fleeting chance to perhaps correct some of the damage she has done or at least atone for it, which is met with Edward standing her up at the restaurant where they were to meet, a stab of emotional violence that carries with it several decades of pain and regret and anger. The novel within the film is Edward's distillation of his own life experience into the fictional guise of a thriller, but his revenge, like Tony's, is to inflict upon Susan what she did to him, thus completing a cycle that has no meaning except the perpetuation of human misery via a supposedly "weak" man proving his hardened bona fides. If that sounds like a downer, it is, but in the best kind of way. Noctural Animals is actually two very good films in one, both of which compel us to rethink our own sense of justice and fairness.
Copyright © 2016 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Focus Features
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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