“Nocturnal Animals”: a Story-within-a-Story of Weakness and Betrayal

Nocturnal Animals is fashion designer Tom Ford’s second feature film as both writer and director, and once again he has delivered a nuanced film full of emotion, sadness, and intrigue.  Starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, the film is a peculiar mixture of crime thriller and relationship melodrama, married through an inventive “story-within-a-story” structural device:   the main character reads a manuscript of her ex-husband’s novel, and the film’s narrative ping-pongs between the real world and the world of the novel.  As the procedural story unravels in the novel, we learn more about the relationship between these two characters in multiple flashbacks.

Eventually, it becomes clear that the novel, also called Nocturnal Animals, is a metaphor for the author’s feelings, his relationship with Adams’s character, and the eventual dissolution of their marriage.  Bolstered by expert performances, wonderful casting choices, and a determined, tension-generating pacing, Nocturnal Animals is one of the more distinctive films of this year.  It is also tortuous and sad, as a fictional trauma is revealed to be the expression of a more realistic emotional betrayal that could happen to any of us.

There are two separate plots in the film, but they are intricately related.  The first takes place in the real world, in Los Angeles.  Susan Morrow (Adams) manages an art gallery (which produces one of the more baffling opening credits sequences in recent memory, by the way), and is married to her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer).  The two are not particularly happy with their lives; they are both struggling professionally, and the relationship seems to have cooled off over the last 20 years.  Then, Susan receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield, complete with a heart-felt note and a dedication.  The novel is named Nocturnal Animals, and she reads it while her husband is away on business.

The second plot takes place in the novel Nocturnal Animals.  This story involves the Hastings  family on a road trip across West Texas.  Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) does most of the driving while his daughter India (Ellie Bamber) is glued to her phone in the back seat until they enter a no service zone.  Tony’s wife Laura is played by Isla Fisher, in particularly brilliant piece of casting.  The inciting event of the story involves Tony being forced off the road by a trio of drunken ruffians, led by a man named Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).  The men repeatedly intimidate Tony into submission, and eventually he is separated from his family and left alone in the West Texas countryside.

Gripped by the tension of the story, Susan begins to remember her relationship with Edward, the author.  Edward is also portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, and through these flashbacks we begin to understand the development of his relationship with Susan.  The reveal of this past story is deliberate.  It may not be the best use of flashback-as-storytelling this year (that award goes to another Amy Adams film, Arrival), but it is innovative and interesting all the same.

The events of the novel punctuate all of these real-world revelations.  In the novel, bad things happen, and a Texas Detective named Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) joins the story, hoping to find the men that harmed Tony and his family.  This plot unravels in linear fashion as Susan reads the book, but each new revelation in the novel leads to a new revelation from the relationship.

Susan and Edward are the driving forces in the real-world story, as the film is essentially a slow reveal of the circumstances surrounding their courtship, marriage, and divorce.  Both characters are interesting, though I would agree that present-time Susan is a bit of a drag (but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?).  The two were childhood friends (and crushes), but re-united in graduate school where Edward was studying to be an author and Susan studied Art History.  Susan is resigned to never be a great artist, though Edward tries to push her into taking that jump.  Edward obviously struggles to find success with his writing, as it was revealed early on that Nocturnal Animals is his first completed manuscript.

In said novel, the two most important characters are Tony and Bobby.  Tony is almost a shell of a man, and you feel the burden of self-blame crushing him in practically every scene.  By contrast, Bobby Andes is forceful, intimidating, and very matter-of-fact.  He is an absolute force whenever he is on the screen, and Michael Shannon likely gives the best performance in the entire film.

But even ancillary characters steal some scenes in this film.  In the real world, there is a single scene with Susan’s mother, Anne (Laura Linney).  Though she is only onscreen for about three minutes, Linney devastates in this scene, delivering some brutal verbal barbs to her daughter – and the audience certainly understands the dramatic irony in her prognostication even if Susan herself does not.

And in the novel, Ray Marcus is such a smarmy, coarse asshole that you have to appreciate the performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  He is intimidating and creepy, but can shift to oily and slippery when confronted by law enforcement.  These smaller parts are crucial, and they are executed perfectly.

Ultimately, one of the more impressive aspects of Nocturnal Animals is the dynamic between the characters in the novel and those in the real world, especially given that the events in the story are the product of Edward’s artistic vision, as are many characters.  Because of this, the casting choices in the film represent an important stylistic element in this film, at least more so than in others.  Hence, both Edward and Tony are played by Gyllenhaal to indicate to the audience that Tony’s weakness is an expression of Edward’s own self-conscious feelings.  Similarly, casting Isla Fisher as Tony’ wife is a stroke of brilliance – her appearance is incredibly similar to Amy Adams (this year, Fisher sent her family a Christmas Card with Adams Photoshopped in her place; no one noticed).  This casting suggests to the audience that these characters are similar as well, while not making it as blatant as the Edward / Tony relationship.

So, why the complex structure and trick casting choices?  The novel Nocturnal Animals is a metaphor for Edward’s life, his relationship with Susan, and its dissolution.  “Weakness” is explicitly mentioned by each character, and it is dramatized brilliantly in both stories .  The novel itself can be interpreted as a pyrrhic victory for Edward, mirroring Tony’s fate in the story.  True, it is a successful completion of his artistic endeavor, but it cannot end happily for him and Susan, due to the circumstances surrounding their breakup.  Spoilers follow, though knowing them shouldn’t detract from the overall power of the film.

SPOILERS!

Tony’s wife and daughter have been murdered and taken from him because he was not strong enough to stop it or avoid it.    For Edward, the completion of Nocturnal Animals is akin to Tony’s execution of Ray Marcus – he “rights” the wrong, or at least delivers a modicum of justice for the afflicted.  But the result cannot be happiness or even cordiality.  It is this reason that, when Susan agrees to have dinner with Edward, she is left drinking alone until the end credits roll.  The novel is a product of the emotional trauma she put him through, a reminder of the bloody messiness of his weakness.  From there, no reconciliation is possible.

The themes of Nocturnal Animals are beautifully tied in with this brilliant structure.  There’s an obvious  self-depreciation apparent in both Tony and Edward, as we have mentioned before.  There is also betrayal, and a more general weakness in refusing to acknowledge that a relationship has changed irrevocably.  Further, at the heart of the Edward / Susan conflict are ideas of artistic creativity, personal drive,  and the way that a person’s ideas of what they want change – and the lengths to which they will go to try to protect their loved ones from that change.  Finally, the film speaks to the potential for a single devastating choice to be irreconcilable.

Nocturnal Animals is a complex film, both thematically and structurally.  It can boast powerful performances, top-notch direction and pacing, and some impressive storytelling.  It is a distinctive film, and should stand out as one of the most interesting pieces of cinema delivered this year.

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