Saturday, February 18, 2017

Movie Review: NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)


Director: Tom Ford
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough
Runtime: 116 min
Rating: Drama, Thriller
Purchasing Links: DVD, Blu-ray

Read the review after the jump.


Review by Popa Razvan

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from "Nocturnal Animals". Films like this are usually head trips, and as far as audience satisfaction goes, they often fall victim to a filmmaker's ego. They can either be a pretentious mess, or a thoughtful fulfilling experience. This one falls somewhere in the middle.

Written and directed by Tom Ford ("A Single Man") based on the novel "Tony and Susan" by Austin Wright, the film plays out essentially as a story within a story. The protagonist of our first narrative thread is Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner whose marriage is on the rocks. One day she receives the manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), called "Nocturnal Animals". She begins to read it.

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals

The book tells the story of Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal), a man who takes a road trip through West Texas with his family. Driving at night, they are forced off the road in the middle of nowhere by a gang of troublemakers led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). His wife and daughter are raped and murdered, while he manages to evade the killers. The novel then follows Tony's search for justice, aided by local detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). At this point, real-world Susan begins to suspect that the book is in fact an allegory for her and Edward's broken marriage that ended on brutal terms. Even the title is a nickname that Edward gave Susan because she was suffering from insomnia.

The book may simply be an instrument of revenge. The reasons are supplied via flashbacks as the film takes us through the evolution of Susan and Edward's failed relationship. These scenes, triggered by events in the book, deepen our connection to these characters and are crucial to understanding both them and the metaphorical fiction of Edward's book.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals

Although the film is ambitious, visually stunning and wonderfully acted, there's also a certain feeling of cold emptiness about it. You might say it's a case of style over substance, but at times I felt that the style was the actual substance of it. Ford is a very skilled visual storyteller, and there are many scenes where no dialogue is even required for the viewer to feel and understand. The powerful score by Abel Korzeniowski also helps tremendously. Yet there are moments when all this intelectualized stylishness feels empty, more like an exercise than an actual story with actual characaters. To Ford's credit though, even at its most alienating, the film is always interesting to watch and the narrative jumping around is surprisingly tidy and easy to follow. It's too bad that the characters aren't fleshed out more.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Nocturnal Animals

A big part of why the film ends up being so engrossing is its cast. Adams, Gyllenhaal, and especially Shannon and Taylor-Johnson are a delight to watch. Even though the script doesn't make significant efforts to make their characters more complex, they rise above their limitations and make their roles memorable. In fact, Shannon and Taylor-Johnson have already received their fair share of accolades this year: an Oscar nomination for the former, and a Golden Globe win and BAFTA nomination for the latter.

If you're inclined to watch this film because you've heard it's a thriller, you should reconsider, because it's only being labeled a thriller for the part of the film involving the novel. Otherwise, it's a pretty straightforward psychological drama. It's debatable whether or not the film should actually be considered a thriller, since nobody's life is in any kind of peril or extreme situation outside of the novel's fictional setting. Either way, this film might not appeal to everyone, so while there's some very crafty filmmaking at work here, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who doesn't care about that kind of stuff. Or, maybe a very cautious recommendation.



  • Excellent Acting
  • Solid writing and directing keep the film coherent as it juggles multiple narrative threads and metaphors
  • Impeccable visual style
  • Powerful score

  • At times it feels empty and alienating
  • Characters lack complexity



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