“A narratively intense film”

by Steve Pulaski

Poor Jake Gyllenhaal and the characters he so often plays can never seem to catch a break. Just when you think he may have gotten his moment in Nocturnal Animals to play a calm and collective character, unlike in Demolition, Nightcrawler, and even Southpaw, his character in this film is put through every grueling test imaginable in order to stick to his non-violent sensibilities. Where Hacksaw Ridge showed the virtue of being a pacifist, here’s a film that shows its darker side.

Unexpectedly, Gyllenhaal gives another Oscar-worthy performance he probably won’t be adequately recognized for, but also unexpectedly, Nocturnal Animals is one of the best films of the year. A layered, masterful work of interwoven storylines mixed with crime-drama craft, infused with the same kind of pulsating, West Texas-vibes we saw so beautifully in Hell or High Water, and multilayered storytelling at its finest, the film features gifted actors throwing themselves into performances that require massive versatility between scenes.

Nocturnal Animals
Directed by
Tom Ford
Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon
Release Date
9 December 2016
Steve’s Grade: A+

The film initially revolves around the life of Susan Morrow, played by Amy Adams, a wealthy woman who owns an art gallery with her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer), the kind of empty alpha male who’s always away on business. One day, Susan receives a manuscript in the mail; it’s a book written by Edward Sheffield, her ex-husband whom she divorced twenty years ago; the book is titled “Nocturnal Animals,” a name Edward used to refer to Susan for her frequent insomniac tendencies.

She sits down to read the book and is instantly gripped as we watch it unfold. The story revolves around Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife (Amy Adams) and daughter (Ellie Bamber), as they are driving through a lonely, long-stretch of land in Texas on their way to Marfa. Tony is a peaceful man, evident immediately by the way he tries to handle a group of rambunctious thugs (played very well by three young actors, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, and Robert Aramayo) who run him off the road and harass him and his family as he tries to make any kind of move. Eventually, two of the goons wind up kidnapping his wife and daughter, while the other makes him drive to the middle of nowhere before abandoning him. After a long, agonizing night, Tony links up with Detective Bobby Andes (the great Michael Shannon), who helps him find the whereabouts of the thugs after we see that his wife and daughter have been brutally killed.

Punctuating these often lengthy sequences of Edward’s book are flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s marriage, which was young and infatuated with rebellious ideas about living off of what makes you happy and abandoning the antiquated, conservative mindset of Susan’s mother. Edward was always a writer, a sensitive one at that, and Susan’s mother (Isla Fisher) forewarned her that she would eventually become disappointed with his “weakness,” to which Susan eventually did before they divorced. Now, her existence is surrounded by lavish belongings and beautiful art, but it’s immensely hollow and unsatisfying, where her momentary escape is the book written by her ex-husband whom she thought was too spineless and maybe even a bit too self-absorbed to ever write something of this great conviction.

Nocturnal Animals is a lot of things, one of which being a look at how gripped and entranced by a novel we can be, especially one written by someone we wrote off or underestimated (perhaps Tom Ford’s subtle reference to his own body of work). But foremost, this is a truly suspenseful picture, probably the most thrilling film I’ve seen since Prisoners, also starring Gyllenhaal, who’s work here is nothing short of sublime. Throughout the film, you see his character go from trying to be relaxed and negotiable to being on the verge of tears and madness until the inevitable explosion. As usual, he reminds us why he’s such a force in every film we see him in. Furthermore, everyone was quick to rave about Amy Adams’ work in Arrival, which was admittedly strong, but I want to see the same people praise her for how she operates here and how she turns a complex character into someone beyond a breathing archetype.

Then there’s Michael Shannon, who, time and time again, I’ve referred to as the best, most impressive actor living today, and he goes on to prove me correct with another thoroughly masterful performance that’s mannered, reserved, unsettling, and full of whispers. Shannon always makes himself an ominous presence in his films, whether he intends to or not, and here, he plays like the kind of detective you really have to take a closer look at to make sure he’s really on your side. Either way, after the Academy criminally looked past him for his amazing work in 99 Homes, he’s owed a nomination for his terrific performance here, as well.

One can thank not only the laundry-list of great actors on display here, but also the cinematography of Seamus McGarvey, who paints a different picture of West Texas than cinematographer Giles Nuttgens did of the same plains in Hell or High Water.

McGarvey’s photography is darker, and sometimes revolving around instant shifts in color, contrast, and brightness based on natural lighting. Consider the low-angle shot of Detective Andes calling Tony on the phone late in the film and how the sun initially obscures our view of him and his vehicle, until Ford’s camera shifts so that Shannon’s head blocks the sun for a few moments and the crispness of the colors of his truck and the locale can be seen. After just a few moments of clarity, Ford’s camera persists on panning against the ground so that the sun obscures our view once again. Tricky little cinematographical components like that add life to what’s already a narratively intense film.

Then there’s the way Ford, who also wrote the film based on the Austin Wright novel Tony and Susan, handles these three serious narrative arches in a way that’s not the least bit cryptic nor hard to follow. In fact, it gives the audience another layer of investment in these characters, and momentary sighs of relief when Tony’s saga becomes a bit too stark and shocking to handle. Initially, I wished that Tony’s story was the film and that Susan’s portion hadn’t existed, but when it came time to see how the two ends were tied together, I was proven that my impulsive thought was indeed foolish.

On one hand, this is a story about guilt, revenge, and closure. On another, it’s about reflection, revenge in a more personal sense, and proving how quickly swayed a person is. Tom Ford constructs a menacing thriller that’s sometimes erotic, sometimes downright nasty, but continuously suspenseful the entire way through, as well as showing how affecting it is in two separate, but both meaningful, conclusions.