365 Movies By Day Reviews of Movies I Watch that I Feel Like Writing About

20Nov/163

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Almost perfect. While it may not even end up in my top five movies of the year, Tom Ford's (A Single Man) Nocturnal Animals was almost perfect. There was so much I liked in this movie and Ford almost created a masterpiece, but the movie just felt short. An A- for sure. Maybe even an A. But it won't be the 49th movie that I've seen that I would classify as an A+. Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs, Everest) is better than ever and he COULD end up with an Oscar nomination for this film. In a perfect world, he would, especially since he very well may have been the odd man out both in 2015 (Nightcrawler) and 2016 (Southpaw) for a Best Actor Academy Award. But with four of the five slots pretty much locked up (Tom Hanks - Sully, Denzel Washington - Fences, Casey Affleck - Manchester by the Sea, Joel Edgerton (Loving), that leaves only one more nomination between Gyllenhaal, Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Warren Beatty (Rules Don't Apply), and Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge). And, to be honest, while his performance was great, it wasn't nearly the performance he gave in either Nightcrawler or Southpaw. Ford's chances for a Best Directing nod look even dimmer, and an impressive performance by Amy Adams (The Fighter, American Hustle) may be completely overlooked because she will likely receive a nomination (and may even be the frontrunner) for Arrival, a movie that was released just a week before Nocturnal Animals.

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. Nocturnal Animals was thought to be a darkhorse, to begin with, but there was a lot of buzz leading up to its release. And, like me, I think a lot of critics will appreciate this movie for what it was, while also wondering what could have been. With a critics score of 72% and an audience score of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes, it still is a movie that encourages moviegoers to see. But it's still well short of the 85% critics score which is generally needed to be considered for recognition come awards season. At the time of this writing, Nocturnal Animals is the 33rd movie I've seen in 2016. I'd be hard-pressed to name a movie that kept me on the edge of my seat as much as this one did. I felt it wasn't predictable at all. With 15 minutes to go, I felt the movie could have gone in so many different directions that would have left me satisfied. While its final minutes weren't wrapped up in a nice bow, the ending felt warranted and will leave you pondering, both right after the movie and perhaps long after that. [Ironically, the last movie I reviewed was Arrival and I, at the time, ignorantly said that you wouldn't think about that movie after seeing it...well it's been a week and I think about this movie all the time...it's one of the few times where I think I will need to watch the movie again and then, potentially, change my review completely].

Susan Morrow (Adams) is a wealthy and powerful art gallery owner. We meet her in the first scene when she is curating a local exhibit that features a number of obese naked women posing at a conceptual art exhibit. The women are so obese that they look crippled and disfigured. It's a pretty disturbing first scene and you might wonder what you got yourself into. I think this scene was meant to grab your attention. It certainly does. And while I'm probably missing something, I don't think it really figured that much into what you see the rest of the moving. However, with that said, I'm sure the opening was more purposeful than I was led to believe. Though successful, Susan seems to be living a miserable life. She is married to the successful Hutton (Armie Hammer - The Birth of a Nation, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and the couple lives in a house so big that they can afford to have their own security team). And while she appears to be living a dream life, Susan is miserable. She puts up a front like everything is okay, but the couple is struggling financially and their marriage is not doing any better.

A manuscript shows up at her house that has been written by Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal), her ex-husband. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Amy and Edward got married at a very young age. They had been friends while living in Texas and reconnected in New York when Amy was in school at Columbia and Edward was interviewing there. Amy's mother (Laura Linney - The Savages, Mystic River) had warned Amy about Edward, drilling it in her brain that the things that she loved him for were the things that she would grow to hate him for. Edward has continually been referred to as weak. Susan constantly defended him as being sensitive and romantic rather than weak, but it seems that she is easily influenced by what others say. There were a number of factors that contributed to their divorce and the 19 years of not speaking to one another that resulted.

The movie is a back and forth between Susan's life and the story that Edward has written and dedicated to her. Couple this with some flashbacks of the relationship of Edward and Susan falling in love and there is the story. But the movie really centers around the story that Edward has written. Titled Nocturnal Animals, this is a name that Edward used to give Susan because of her inability to sleep at night. Nocturnal Animals is a story about Tony (played in the movie by Gyllenhaal), a husband and father of a teenage daughter who, on a nighttime trip through Texas, are run off the road by three men, led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson - Godzilla, Albert Nobbs) and relentlessly harassed. I don't want to say any more here because it will involve spoiling the movie. However, the story is so poignant and well-written that Susan can't put it down. It almost seems like Edward is letting Susan know just how good his book after she had ridiculed him earlier in their marriage and called him a dreamer for wanting to work in a bookstore and write novels.

Though I won't say what happens after Tony, his wife Laura (Isla Fisher - Wedding Crashers, The Lookout), and daughter India after they run off the road, I will say that what unfolds is riveting and absolutely heartbreaking. In fact, you get so ingrained in the story that the transitions back to Susan in the present time to see her reactions to the story are somewhat frustrating. Though I won't mention his role specific, Michael Shannon (Take Shelter, Revolutionary Road) also stars and is just as fabulous as he ever is.

Gyllenhaal is fantastic as the even-keeled father who is pushed to the extreme in desperate situations. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. He is a man who is easily affected by each event that happens in his life. Sure he is sensitive, but is he weak? That is one of the themes that continually is brought up throughout this film. I encourage you to see this movie for yourself and watch the development of Gyllenhaal's character in particular. Unfortunately, his development is one of the reasons that this movie didn't land in that classic status for me. There was so much more potential with his character that was missed. I definitely don't blame it on the actor as much as I do the script and Ford. Pardon the pun, but the freedom his character could have had was caged in.

Nocturnal Animals is a great movie. If you want a gritty, dark mystery that will keep you involved from its extremely bizarre beginning up until its ending that will leave you thinking. You might be satisfied. You might want something more definitive. If you don't like endings where everything is cut and dry, you might not be satisfied with how it ends. But I do recommend this movie. if you are a fan of either Gyllenhaal or Adams, this film is a much watch. Because of how well it's shot, I'd encourage you to see it in the theater. The score for this film is also extremely effective.

***Spoilers***

The problems with Nocturnal Animals are few, but they are just enough to knock it from elite status. First and foremost, Susan's daughter needed to be much better incorporated if there was supposed to be the comparison between her and India. I don't even recall there being a mention of a daughter of Susan and Hutton until she calls up Samantha after putting down Edward's book and calling her up in (what we thought) was the middle of the night. And even then, we get a picture of her daughter sleeping in bed with a man's arms around her and there is nothing to believe that it isn't Hutton's mistress mistakingly thinking his phone was hers and answering it. Samantha had to have been a bigger part of the screenplay and this storyline most likely got cut in the editing room. But for the story, with all of its symbolism and parallels to truly be effective, we needed to see more of Samantha and to really believe that Susan cared for her daughter in the same way that Tony cared for his.

Secondly, Edward/Tony's character wasn't developed as strongly as it could have been. To truly show that he changed from what we supposed perceive was a weak man, he needed to actually be weak. Or perhaps, we weren't supposed to believe what everyone else said about Edward and believed that he was just romantic and sensitive. But when he himself admits that he should have done more to protect his family, in a way, he is saying that he was weak. So if he was supposed to be weak, make him weak. Or if he was supposed to be of sound man and rational, then don't have him second guess his decision-making. Instead, Ford should have made Tony feel secure that he was doing the right thing in listening to Ray, Lou, and Turk and, also, not coming out of his hiding place when Lou and Turk called for him. The weaker he had been at the start of the movie and the flashbacks, the more it would have seemed that his character changed. But, again, it was ambiguous as to whether he was weak or if he was actually stronger than others made him out to be. There was definitely an opportunity to present him with either front and this was a missed opportunity.

Thirdly would be Susan's responses to Hutton's cheating on her. While they were putting up a front for their friends in order to "keep up with the Joneses", there are emotional feelings that we all have when people we trust hurt us in the most profound ways. So even though we know their relationship wasn't great, the verification that Hutton was cheating on her with another woman seemed to have little impact on Susan. In fact, she didn't really even respond, choosing instead to delve back into Edward's book.

Fourthly, what did Susan see on Sage's (Jena Malone - The Messenger, Into the Wild) phone and why? This was really the only paranormal part of the movie and it just didn't fit. One you just do something once, it can often be interpreted as a mistake. To keep the audience from having to guess, repeat this element/idea a few times so it can be established as a theme. Ironically, the poster that Susan and Sage are standing in front of when Susan sees what she sees and then drops and cracks Sage's phone screen says "Revenge". I have a feeling there were many more subtle clue throughout this film that I failed to see. I will have to read about all of the parallels after finishing this review.

Finally were the actions of the characters. There was the sloppy chase scene that led to the abduction of Laura and India. There was far too much that could have gone wrong. There were much easier ways for Ray to get Tony to the side of the road. And, if the goal was to get the two women in one car, and Tony in the other, they simply could have overpowered the weaker trio. And a cop car driving by with foul play happening on the side of the road and Tony doing his best to flag the officer down was not needed. I understand that the cop car was in chase of something else, but, even if the officer didn't stop, he certainly would have called to the dispatcher to get the situation on the side of the road looked at. There was no need to have that cop car at all. I believe that I do understand why Tony was deserted in the middle of the desert only to have Lou and Turk come back for him. I believe that there was never intent to murder either Laura or India, but that Lou didn't like being told what to do and thus acted impulsively. This resulted in needing to permanently erase Tony. But, even after that, why are any of these men even remotely close to the state of Texas. An even better question...why would Lou return to his home to take a nap after narrowly escaping from Tony and Bobby after Ray is shot dead. If he hadn't already realized it, Lou certainly would have known at that point that Tony and Bobby were taking the law into their own hands. Yet he takes a nap in the one location where they would look first. Completely irrational.

Along the same line, to a lesser extent, is Bobby and really the whole police force involved in this story. Sure, Bobby was dying and this explains some of his more irrational and risk-taking actions. With only a year to live and really being pushed away from his job, Bobby didn't want his last case to be an unsolved one. And taking the law into his own hands was certainly something he could do. But getting other members on the force to get on board with that just to have them walk away and give the men to Bobby and Tony. Likewise, uncuffing Ray and Lou didn't seem likely. Nor did Tony's lack of desire in really wanting to hurt the men who were responsible for killing his wife and child. I feel that if I were in the same situation, just killing the men with a gun would be too easy. I would make them suffer. But we all operate differently.

But again, this was not just a story, but a story being told within a story (and a work of fiction at that). I think it's fair to let some of these things slide. At the same time, I think it's important to at least bring some of these factors up.

***End of Spoilers***

Plot 9/10
Character Development 8.5/10
Character Chemistry 9/10
Acting 9/10
Screenplay 8.5/10
Directing 8.5/10 (I do love when flashbacks are incorporated into movies and done so effectively)
Cinematography 9.5/10
Sound 10/10
Hook and Reel 10/10
Universal Relevance 9.5/10 (sadly...)
91.5%

 

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Loved this review! Not gonna lie, I totally missed the connection that Samantha was the daughter between Susan and Hutton. This helps clarify that plot line, so thanks! I also agree with your second point re Edwards character – I had the same beef. With that, two points to make on top of your #3 and #4 spoilers:

    (Note: also spoilers below)

    Re #3: I took the lack of anger from Samantha that Hutton was cheating to be literal – she didn’t care about the relationship because she was miserable in her current life. Instead she turns back to Edward’s book, which I took as her being regretful for ever leaving Hutton and perusing this life she not hates. The book is reflective or her/Edwards past relationship, and that’s what she turns to in hopes of finding some kind of resolve amidst her misterable present.

    Re #4: I didn’t take what Susan saw on the phone as paranormal. To me it was showing that Susan couldn’t stop thinking about the book, and Edward. Standing in front of REVENGE and being so caught up in Edward/TheBook (her past relationship) that it impacts her in the present foreshadows how the book is going to be involved in Edward’s ultimate revenge. (**major spoiler**) Specifically that she loves the book,, has hopes of fleeting happiness w Edward, yet he stands her up just before his book becomes super successful — a big FU to Susan who is miserable in life desipite having everything she dropped him for.

    Not gonna lie, I was left pretty confused by some of the subtleties, but after reading through some reviews and rewatching some parts this one was pretty solid. Agreed though: Potential for an A+, but fell short at an A-

  2. *Typo in previous comment: “Re #3: I took the lack of anger from *Susan* that Hutton was cheating…”

    • Thank you for reading and, even more, for commenting. I very much want this to be a community blog and it’s comments like this that help make that happen!

      I see your point about her not caring about the relationship because she was too miserable in her current life. I guess I tried to put myself in her shoes for this one and, when I’ve been cheated on, I’ve cared. I’ve never gotten to the point where I was so unhappy with life that I didn’t care if my significant other cheated on me. I’ve often been very unhappy, but those have been times when I’ve been single, except my first year after undergrad when I was miserable and in a relationship and I ended up not fighting for the relationship because I was going to be miserable either in it or out of it.

      I don’t remember the part about the phone! This is one of many reasons why this movie deserves a second viewing…which it will receive.

      The last week of March 2017 will go down as “Amy Adams Week for Jeff Turner”. I will watch Arrival again too.


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