Beautifully Flawed: A 'Nocturnal Animals' Film Review
by Will Lindus
In 2009, fashion icon Tom Ford set the cinematic world on fire with his directorial debut A Single Man, an equally beautiful and crushing film that established Ford as a talent to keep an eye on. For his sophomore project, Ford’s Nocturnal Animals reinforces both his silver screen aesthetic and his prowess for drawing phenomenal performances out of phenomenal actors, while also revealing some holes in his ability to craft and execute a cohesive narrative.
Nocturnal Animals features Amy Adams as an art gallery owner who has grown disquieted by the trajectory of her life. She receives a package in the mail containing a completed novel by an ex-husband whom she hasn’t seen in decades. The book, it turns out, is a violent thriller set in west Texas, and as she pours through the words, she finds herself both drawn in and repulsed by what she perceives as a message meant singularly for her.
In terms of structure, Nocturnal Animals feels much like The NeverEnding Story for adults in that the narrative is split into multiple, nested parts. We’re primarily treated to the story of Amy Adams as the film’s framing device, wherein she must sort through the feelings brought on by the mysterious novel. The film also allows the story within the book to play out cinematically, featuring Jake Gyllenhaal as a grieving father who teams with a rugged sheriff (Michael Shannon) to seek justice for his family. A third story plays out, too, in the form of flashbacks to Amy Adams and her husband as they began (and ended) their relationship some twenty years prior.
This tale of revenge and consequence features stilted, clumsy dialogue that feels unfinished and unpolished. This type of story structure demands a tighter script and a more inventive way of weaving through the subplots than was delivered on screen, a failing which is all the more tragic when compared with the other things the film does so very well. Tom Ford has a gifted eye, and captures the talents of director of photography Seamus McGarvey to produce stunning, stark sequences which bring to focus the isolated and cold nature of the material. Simply put, this film looks beautiful. Further, Ford brings his fashionista sensibilities to the forefront by keeping Amy Adams consistently adorned by some of the most beautiful dresses to appear on screen this year. I’m not one to normally rave about fashion stylings, primarily because my own fashion sense leaves much to be desired, but even the most anti-chic of audiences will fall in love with the killer green dress Adams sports towards the end of the film.
The cast of Nocturnal Animals brings their A-game, with Amy Adams taking lead by balancing both the poised anxiety of the modern version of herself with the blind naiveté possessed by the younger version of herself in flashbacks. Jake Gyllenhaal plays anguish and tentative resolve effectively, though the number of times he drops to the ground and screams to the sky due to emotional duress is a bit excessive. Perhaps this would have worked better as a drinking game. The standouts, however, are Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. If it weren’t for Jeff Bridges and his groundbreaking performance in Hell or Highwater, Michael Shannon would be the most compelling hardboiled west Texas lawman to grace the screen this year. Taylor-Johnson is almost unrecognizable as an unpredictable and terrifying criminal, a cinematic feat which reveals heretofore unseen acting chops from the Kick-Ass star. These performances do not happen in a vacuum; Ford has an obvious talent for working with his cast and allowing them the room to stretch their talents.
Bottom Line: Sometimes, one aspect of a film is enough to hamper it. If the dialogue felt more natural, if the script allowed the twists and turns of the story to weave a bit more organically, this might be a film to remember. As it stands, even with the strong performances and stunning cinematography, Nocturnal Animals is merely a somewhat good film that stands in the shadow of the great film it could have been.
Nocturnal Animals begins its limited theatrical run on 11/18/2016.
3.5 out of 5 Bear Paws