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Beasts of the Night

Amy Adams
Amy Adams
Focus Features
 116 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by:  Tom Ford
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal
Nocturnal Animals

Winston Churchill once famously described Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” I have the feeling that he would employ similar language to describe Tom Ford’s glittery, atmospheric neo-noir Nocturnal Animals. After all, it’s a novel inside a present day narrative interspersed with flashbacks. And, while the plot structure is complicated, the movie is always fascinating to look at and, eventually, oddly compelling as well.


Nocturnal Animals is largely the story of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a woman who seemingly has everything, a successful art gallery that she owns, plenty of money, and a handsome husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). But Susan’s life is completely devoid of warmth and emotion, and her husband is practically carrying on an affair under her nose. In the midst of this emptiness, she gets a bizarre “present,” a manuscript of a novel entitled Nocturnal Animals, written by her first husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). As Susan begins to read the book (and soon becomes engulfed by it), she also reminisces about her life with Edward.


Susan and Edward had met in college and fallen passionately in love with each other. At that time, Edward dreamed of becoming a great writer, and Susan supported him. But, eventually, Susan decided that Edward would never become successful and that he was, in fact, holding her back. This decision was influenced greatly by Susan’s snooty mother (Laura Linney), who felt Edward was beneath her daughter, and, when Susan met Hutton, she finally cast Edward aside, but not before doing one last, extremely hurtful thing to her soon-to-be-ex husband.


As Susan starts to read Edward’s novel (and viewers get to see it play out on screen), she realizes that it is highly autobiographical. The main character, Tony Hastings, is obviously a stand-in for Edward (and is also played by Gyllenhaal) and, as the novel begins, is on a long car trip with his wife (played by Isla Fisher, an actress bearing a considerable resemblance to Amy Adams) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber) across rural Texas en route to a vacation. The journey soon becomes a nightmare when they are run off the road by three punks and terrorized by their leader (an almost unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson). To say that the ensuing encounter does not go well would be like saying that Pearl Harbor did not go well. In any event, Tony spends the rest of the novel looking for the punks, aided by a no-nonsense Texas Ranger (Michael Shannon). As the novel progresses, the formerly mild mannered and rather meek Tony gets progressively tougher.


Nocturnal Animals was written and directed by Tom Ford, the fashion designer whose first filmmaking effort, A Single Man, was widely acclaimed (and earned star Colin Firth an Oscar nomination). Animals is a far more ambitious project, and, like the material itself, the movie works on different levels. Most notably, Ford has brought his sense of style to the film, capturing the mood in one incredibly staged scene after another, from the sterile interiors of Susan’s house and gallery to the sun-bleached West Texas landscapes and dingy shacks where Tony finally encounters his nemesis. An Oscar nomination for production design is almost guaranteed here.


But, contrary to what some critics have said, there’s far more to Nocturnal Animals than first meets the eye. What’s key to note here is that the entire film takes place through Susan’s eyes: the current scenes, the flashbacks, and the novel-within-the film. Casting Gyllenhaal as Tony makes sense because Susan sees Tony as Edward’s vision of himself, and by casting Isla Fisher as Tony’s wife, Susan sees a more innocent version of herself, the self that, deep down below, she still clings to the notion of being.


What the audience sees, to the contrary, is that Susan isn’t the same innocent she was when she and Edward met but a woman who morphed into a younger version of her mother, using rationalization as a justification for cutting Edward loose. There’s tremendous cruelty and brutality in Nocturnal Animals, not just in what the punks do to Tony’s family, but in what Susan does as well.


All of this means that Animals is the type of movie that richly rewards, and perhaps deserves, a second viewing. Ford has some obvious symbolism (such as the Tony/Edward dynamic) and some that is far less obvious. It’s a film that will stay with audiences, mostly for the novel sequences (which could easily have been made into a standalone southern noir film), but also for the contrast with Susan’s life. Eventually, the concept of revenge and the toll that it takes are revealed in endings to both Susan’s story and the novel. In my view, at least, the final image of the movie is a perfect summation of the movie’s themes.


While Tom Ford deserves much of the credit for the look and mood of Nocturnal Animals, the gifted ensemble cast is excellent as well. Amy Adams’ Susan is a solid complementary bookend to her earlier performance this year in Arrival, and this role may give her enough momentum to score an Oscar nomination for the earlier film. Jake Gyllenhall delivers two moving performances for the price of one, as well. But the standout is Michael Shannon, in another one of his patented supporting performances that steal the movie. Who would have thought that two of the most compelling supporting performances in 2016 would be by actors playing modern day Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water being the other).


Nocturnal Animals is proving to be a controversial film, with a number of critics deriding its sterility. But the deliberately sterile, empty feel of the movie is exactly the point. It’s a film about actions and consequences that are often a long time in coming, and mystery of exactly what sort of person Edward has become in the years since Susan left him is tantalizingly never fully resolved. What should be resolved is this, however; Nocturnal Animals is one of the better, and more thought-provoking films of 2016.

In this scene, Jake Gyllenhaal and his family are terrorized by thugs on a deserted stretch of highway.

Read other reviews of Nocturnal Animals:


Nocturnal Animals (2016) on IMDb