Movie Review: ‘Nocturnal Animals’
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Michael Shannon
Plot: A manager of an art gallery is rattled by her ex-husband’s new book
The trailers do such a great job of not ruining what the movie actually is that I feel bad about doing it now. Yes, I will be ruining the main premise of the movie.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Tony Hastings, a college professor in Texas, who is on an overnight road trip through West Texas, a land of no cell phone service, with his red-headed wife and daughter (the red-headed thing is important). They run afoul of some local troublemakers (one of whom is played by a particularly frightening in a passive-aggressive way Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who run them off the road and eventually make off with Tony’s family leaving him for dead out in the desert. Tony teams up with local peacemaker, Bobby Andes, played by Michael Shannon doing his best young Clint Eastwood schtick. Between its dusty and sun-burnt landscapes and the pulse-pounding and emotionally driven crime drama, especially Gyllenhaal’s expert performance, it is very reminiscent of No Country for Old Men.
If this was all the movie was, it would absolutely work, but instead it is only a fraction of the movie. It is the story within the story. It as written by Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Edward, a struggling writer from Texas who moved to New York to go to school. There, he bumps into his hometown crush, the Texas debutante, Susan Morrow (played by Amy Adams). Long after an ugly divorce, Edward sends Susan his very first manuscript so she could be the first to read it, that story being the one of Tony Hasting and his misfortune in the desert. It is her who imagines Jake, her former lover, in the role of the protagonist, as well as Amy Adams lookalike Isla Fisher as his wife (I told you the red-headed thing would be important).
Fashion designer turned surprisingly competent filmmaker, Tom Ford, knows exactly which buttons to press. I have mentioned in my reviews before that having an actor to react in fear is much scary than any imagery a director might be able to conjure. It is why a movie like Sinister is better than Blair Witch Project because one has Ethan Hawke actually reacting to found footage instead of just the found footage. Adams, in her own special way, adds extra gravity to the story of Tony Hastings. Like I said earlier, it works on its own as a highly riveting crime yarn, but Adams’ voyeurism transforms it into a psychodrama.
A third storyline, about the evolution of Edward and Susan’s relationship in their 20s, also plays against Edward’s novel and Susan’s reading of it. It is an extra wrinkle that gives Edward’s novel and its’ inscription thanking Susan for inspiring the tale an even more mean-spirited tone. Ford has essentially created a paradoxical film. Each story could work perfectly fine on their own. More than fine, really. On paper, the idea of combining them all would probably lead most to think they were simply diluting each story to make them fit a customary feature length. However, Ford has jammed a TV season’s worth of character drama into 2-hour movie that never overstays its welcome, and all three stories are better for it.