Family unfriendly? Anti-romantic? Nihilistic? With disturbing nudity? Finally, the perfect Christmas movie!
by Thom Yee
Okay. It’s the 17th. Of December. It’s almost Christmas. So here’s a review about the effect a sadistic, cruel book has on a lonely, isolated, and unhappy woman. It also starts off with a deeply unsettling sequence of fairly explicit nudity. And it’s December 17th, almost Christmas. Man, we gotta plan these things better. I guess there’s always next year.
In a lot of ways I think December is actually the best time of year for new movies, with a mix of low-brow, seasonally oriented fare and critically acclaimed features being released in near equal measure. While Oscar season — that time of year when the studios pump out their most prestigious, most award-worthy material in a vain attempt to eke out a profit from films that might not have been otherwise noticed — unofficially starts in November, by the time we get to December, we finally have a real measure of what the overarching narrative will be of that year in movies. We’ve had or will soon have the chance to see most of the films we’ll ever see in that year, and we can begin to make out the shape of the Oscars to come.
Unfortunately, December is also one the most stressful times of the movie year because so many of the more critically acclaimed movies are also the smaller ones, opening at different times in different places, and they may not open at all near you, making it hard to figure out when you can see a movie and where you can see it (though if you’re in Edmonton, we’ve got you covered for that with our weekly previews). Such was the case with Nocturnal Animals, which actually opened November 18th in select theatres but didn’t open here until just last week, the 9th of December. Had it opened in November, I probably would already have had my review of it up, but instead, here I am, in the midst of December, writing one of our last reviews of the year, running right up against the edges of my holiday time off this year. That’s okay though, because if there’s one thing I’m definitely thankful for with all of this December movie madness is that it gave me something to write about here, because man, I couldn’t think of anything that could introduce Nocturnal Animals properly.
What’s it about?
Susan (Amy Adams) is a celebrated art gallery owner in Los Angeles and is married to a successful businessman, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer), with whom she enjoys an opulent lifestyle. “Enjoys” would be a significant stretch, however, as Susan has become increasingly distant from her husband, unhappy with her marriage, and isolated in her life, but when a manuscript for an upcoming novel written by her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), suddenly appears at her doorstep, she becomes consumed by the novel’s cruel, sadistic world and what her former husband’s dedication of the novel to her must mean.
From the outside, there are a lot of things Nocturnal Animals could be about, most obviously the nature of relationships, marriages, and unions, how our once high-minded ideals become degraded and even perverted the more successful we become, and even how people can become so adept at hurting one another, sometimes without even trying, and though all of those “aboutnesses” hold sway in the movie, I think Nocturnal Animals is more broadly about how much redefinition becomes necessary in order for us to find any type of happiness at all.
That’s probably wrong though, or at least only a certain level of right, because the one thing I feel I can definitely call Nocturnal Animals is ambiguous. In a lot of ways it doesn’t seem to be trying to tell you anything, and its story, brought to us by fashion designer Tom Ford in only his second turn as a movie director, seems like it’d be perfectly happy if you don’t get anything from the movie at all. Based on a novel called Tony and Susan, written in 1993 by Austin Wright, the movie even takes certainly liberties from its source material that don’t really change any of the essential contents but further distance you from any sense of real definition. For instance, in the book Susan and Edward lived together for a time as children whereas they merely grew up together in the same social circle in the movie. Another small difference is between Susan and Hutton meeting as fellow grad students in the movie while they were neighbours in the book, Hutton having been previously married to a woman experiencing mental breakdowns. None of these differences drastically change anything in the transition from page to screen, but they do exist in the book as layers of detail that might give you further ideas of who these people, whereas their absence in the film, if anything, makes these people even harder to know.
Is it any good?
… Yes… and no. Maybe, but… not really. Not exactly? All of those answers are probably accurate. Like I said, the one thing Nocturnal Animals definitely is is ambiguous. It might seem from the outside like a sexy psychological thriller, and it kind of is from a certain, very forced perspective, but it’s more literally a movie about a woman reading a book, and, again, from the outside that might seem terribly or even horrifically boring. The few details we can feel certain of in Nocturnal Animals do add up to much more than just that, however, as we learn how Susan and Edward first met, fell in love and eventually out of love as Edward’s struggles as a writer cause Susan to fall into the arms of the charming and handsome Hutton Morrow. Strangely, though, as much as those are the most literal details of the movie’s backstory, there’s a weird disaffection with even the barest of those facts (facts that might suggest that Nocturnal Animals belongs to a more overtly salacious genre) that serves to assure you that there is not and will not be anything remotely romantic happening here.
Nocturnal Animals takes place in three separate narratives, one, Susan’s present day where we find the contents of her current life, where her associates celebrates art as if there were nothing else in or to life, her friends dress in garish fashions seemingly meant to evoke a reaction of equal parts shock and revulsion, and her assistants probably have their own assistants; the other, Susan’s reading of her ex-husband Edward’s manuscript in which she envisions her husband in the lead role of the novel, married to a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to her; and the last, flashbacks of Susan and Edward’s time together and the events that pulled them apart. The one thing that unites all of these narratives is that they’re all seen through Susan’s eyes, and therein lies the very first layer of dissonance between reality and “reality”. We can suspect things about the people around her — Hutton is probably cheating on her, her mother is a horrible woman committed to the value systems of a different time, Edward was an overly sensitive man who couldn’t overcome his own weaknesses — but we can never be totally sure of them, not because there’s any compelling reason to believe other than what we’re seeing but because there’s something just barely, unnervingly unhinged about the movie as a whole. I guess the other thing I feel comfortable calling Nocturnal Animals, then, is uncomfortable.
What forms the majority of what we see in Nocturnal Animals is the story of Edward’s novel, itself called Nocturnal Animals, in which Gyllenhaal plays the part of the meek husband and Isla Fisher plays his wife as they, along with their daughter, take a road trip through West Texas. On the road late at night, they’re accosted by a group of three local men and become separated. This is the violent and sad part of the movie, and it’s the closest we come to a complete story in the movie as we witness the events of Nocturnal Animals (the book) playing out through Susan’s eyes and are left largely to infer what her relationship with Edward was like based on what happens. Eventually we do learn what was the final straw that tore them apart, but most of the material of their relationship, good and bad, is what we find in the novel itself, the rest of their story told only through flashbacks so temporary and fleeting that they feel like a part of a different story entirely. There’s something very affected and stylized and… novel-y about Nocturnal Animals (the movie), and it’s not just that it literally is all of those things. It almost seems pre-rendered and false in a way, at least in its non-novel settings, and this feeling goes so far that you may begin to question which world is more real, the world of the novel or the real world we’ve been presented with. There’s a specific abruptness to some of the key moments in this world’s real life that make them feel strangely inauthentic.
Visually, it’s also fair to call Nocturnal Animals a fashion movie, its imagery stunning and evocative all throughout, though most of this style is contained entirely in the real world of Susan’s art gallery, her shows, and her associates, and if the movie’s dueling narratives aren’t enough to make you wonder about what’s real and what’s not, the people she associates with sometimes openly question the nature of what they’re all doing. Though only briefly in the movie, Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough, playing a married couple, are completely open with each other and with Susan that she is merely the beard of a gay man, candidly admitting that nobody, none of them, likes what they do, as if that state of being is only the natural endpoint of the types of lives that they lead, while Jena Malone, as a high-level employee at Susan’s art gallery, shows Susan an app that allows her to monitor her new-born child, to be there without being there, while wearing an outfit that seems entirely designed to show us all she considers herself apart from all of us. The parallels with many of the elements of our own daily lives are plainly on the surface, and yet the more you let whatever this movie is doing sink in, the more it feels like there’s nothing happening here that’s real.
So should I see it?
Whether it’s a book, a movie, or something else entirely, I feel like when so much of a piece is up to interpretation, it’s hard to determine whether that piece is a triumph or just plain slop. There’s enough clear intention behind Nocturnal Animal’s direction to suggest that everything we see must have a specific meaning, but it’s tone also sometimes feels so pointed that it’s like the director is laughing at us when we’re not clearly understanding his point. It’s almost like the achievement of ambiguity was director Tom Ford’s primary intent, but there are still definite answers, and he loves it when our answers are different. As a work of art, Nocturnal Animals is frequently stunning, explicitly so and to the point where it seems appropriate to call it a fashion film. It relies heavily on symbolism, whether it’s the reuse and juxtaposition of a couch or a car in drastically different settings and scenes or simply the way Susan cuts herself on the paper that wraps Edward’s manuscript, virtually hitting you over the head with the broadness and severity of these visuals, but there’s still a layer of subtlety to everything being done onscreen. It falls just enough on the right side of artful, but it comes perilously close to completely falling over into pretension.
It’s entirely possible to walk out of this movie wondering what the critics are talking about, why anyone would want to see this movie, and why what you just watched wasn’t a waste of your time, and then you’ll put it away because you have more important things to do. But you’ll think about it again. You’ll pick it up again, pull it out of that compartment in your head labeled “junk”, look at it for a bit and allow it to gradually eat away at you before putting it down again, only this time into a different compartment, with a label like “needs further inspection”. Then you’ll pick it up again and notice something different, set it down because you almost need to, and then you can’t stop and you’re thinking about it all the time as it sticks to you like a parasite, and, even if you didn’t enjoy it in the strictest sense of the word, it will have changed you, and probably not for the better. I think there are a lot of people who aren’t going to get Nocturnal Animals, but I think there are going to be even more people who do get it and are going to be more than a little turned off by it. For me, that’s a hard movie to rate on a conventional scale, but at least I’m still thinking about it.
Thom’s Nocturnal Animals final score