Rating: 3.5/5 Buckets
Nocturnal Animals is one of those movies that just stuck with me. I thought about it for a few days because it ended with ambiguity rooted in serious subject matter. The film used a fictional story within a real-world story to show a relationship between heinous crimes and common issues in personal relationships. The stories in the film are efficaciously told through Tom Ford’s directing choices, the actor’s strong performances, and resonating themes.
Tom Ford clearly knew how to tell the story he wanted to convey. He brought me into these two intertwined stories that emanated the cold depravity of the darkest part of humanity. Ford wanted the audience to feel the intensity during these uncomfortable scenes, and that is exactly how I felt. Ford even set the stage by opening the film with an uncomfortable credits sequence that seemingly had nothing to do with the story. I wanted to look away from these unattractive, naked women dancing. I knew from the beginning that this was going to be a film that looked at the unattractive side of humanity through an intensely vulnerable and personal story. Ford consistently delivered on the tone he set in the opening sequence. He achieved his desired atmosphere primarily through dark colors and long extended shots.
Nocturnal Animals is littered with dark colors, almost in every frame. The name in and of itself indicates that this will be a dark story. Ford chose this type of color palette because the subject matter is very dark. Most of the film takes place in either an overcast environment or at night. Even the scenes in the brightly lit Texas wilderness are bland, lifeless, and barren. The dark colors instantly brought me into this world and reinforced the fact that this is a film about revenge, murder, kidnapping, rape, abortion, and infidelity. These are not light. A lighter color palette would have conflicted with the subject matter, which would not resonate with the audience. Rather, Ford delivered a film with one aesthetic involving the camera, dialogue, and story. The dark colors expanded beyond the color palette and were also prevalent in what the characters wore. For example, Amy Adams consistently wore dark clothing, lipstick, and makeup to show a darker side of her character. She is conflicted, wrestling with her current marriage and past decisions. The dark colors set the stage, but the camera shots Ford chose is what really stirred up my emotional reactions.
The camera shots is where this film really stands out. Ford chose to build his film’s intensity through long, extended shots that are primarily filmed from an eye-level camera position. This was a bold choice because most other directors would use quick cuts to build adrenaline because they make the scene feel chaotic and fast paced. Ford’s long and extended shots are extremely difficult to pull off because the dialogue and acting all have to be superb for the scene’s tension to build. If a scene doesn’t have those elements it will appear sloppy and unconvincing. The scene has to progress in a calculated way for the tension to build and build and build throughout the lengthy shot. No scene stood out to me as much as the kidnapping scene. This scene set an eerie stage from the beginning. As soon as the Hastings’s car came up to the two muscle cars blocking the road, I knew this was going to end horribly. Slowly the “car chase” escalated until the cars stopped on the side of the road. As soon as Ray and his buddies exited their cars I felt the impending danger rise exponentially. The dialogue between Ray and Tony is hard to watch because I could see how strongly Tony wanted to get his family out of danger but he had no idea how to de-escalate the situation. I knew that this scene would most likely end in either kidnapping, rape, or murder. I felt hopeless and uncomfortable watching the scene unfold, knowing what Tony should have done to stand up for his family. Ford purposefully made the scene tough to sit through for that exact reason. I felt like I was in the scene but as a helpless bystander. I wanted to step in and take action like Tony was too weak to do.
At one point Ford gave me a little hope that just maybe his family was going to escape. They managed to get away and run into the field. My heart sank as I saw them lured back into the danger and eventually taken away. Gyllenhaal’s performance made me feel the gravity of the situation that just happened. His family had been taken away by these horrible human beings and it wasn’t a stretch to imagine the worst would happen to his family. Ford also pulled me into the scene by making it feel like I was a part of it through the eye-level camera location. It brought me to Tony’s level so I could perceive the situation like he had. Ford perfectly constructed this scene to be a powerhouse. The kidnapping scene is the cornerstone of the film. If it didn’t resonate, there is no way the film would have worked. Thankfully the dialogue, direction, and brilliant acting made this scene a masterpiece.
As you would expect out of a film with stars like Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, the acting throughout this film is top notch. The surprise for me was Aaron Taylor-Johnson. That loud, depraved murderer was played by the same guy who played the introverted Kick-Ass?! I didn’t recognize him at first because he completely disappeared into his character. Taylor-Johnson brought an unpredictability to his role through the ranging voice inflection and rapidly moving eyes. His body movements were also unrestricted unlike his other characters. Amy Adams brought a flawed nature to her character. Jake Gyllenhaal, who normally plays strong characters, played a weak and submissive man. Michael Shannon portrayed a strong, unrelenting character that might have more than one screw loose. Overall the acting was fantastic and really brought these characters to life.
Strength and weakness are major themes that play out through the entire film. It is something that fully encompasses every conflict in the film. It exists in Susan and Hutton’s marriage, Susan and Edward’s relationship, Ray and Tony’s conflict, and even in Bobby and Tony’s relationship. In fact, Tony’s weakness in Edward’s novel that he sends to Susan is symbolic of his weakness in their marriage. The Nocturnal Animals story is Edward’s perception of his relationship with Susan. Just as Tony was too weak to stop his family’s kidnapping, Edward was too weak to fulfill Susan and keep their marriage alive. Edward demonstrates his regrets by having Tony repeatedly yell, “I should have stopped it!” Edward wishes he could have stopped Susan from leaving him for a strong, driven man. He wishes he could have kept his aborted daughter alive. He wishes he could have been more like Michael Shannon’s Bobby. Bobby is symbolic of the person that Edward wishes he could be. Bobby was always in control of the situation. He always knew what to do and what to say. If Bobby would have been at the accident, there is no way Tony’s family would have died.
The film also demonstrates the shortcomings in strong and weak individuals. Susan wasn’t happy with either and I think that was purposefully done. Hammer’s strong character was always working toward a goal that eclipsed Susan. He was driven by achievement rather than his love for Susan. On the opposite side of the coin, Edward was driven by his love for Susan and didn’t care about monetary gain. That wasn’t enough for Susan either because that made Edward weak. He lacked the confidence and power that is an attractive quality in a man. I believe that the film shows that weak and strong men both have serious flaws. Rather, a mixture of the two is what a man needs to have a good relationship and success in life. A man needs to have the strength to act and the vulnerability to selflessly love others.
The second major theme in Nocturnal Animals is revenge. The book is Edward’s revenge against Susan for her leaving him and aborting his child. Ray and Laura are symbols for Susan. Laura is who Susan was before she left Edward. Ray is who Susan turned into when she left. Think about it. Ray killed Tony’s wife and daughter just as Susan’s act of aborting their child made Susan and their daughter dead to Edward. There is even a scene where Susan sees Ray appear over a babies crib while Susan is looking at a painting of the word revenge. She is thinking about how Edward is getting revenge for her killing his baby. He purposefully wrote Nocturnal Animals (and named it after Susan) to make sure that she knew how viciously she hurt him. She took everything away from him and left him believing it was his fault. Throughout the book, Edward never stops blaming himself but by the end he does end up putting some responsibility on Ray. The same is true for Edward. At the beginning he believes that it is all his fault. He is the only one responsible. At the end, its clear that he doesn’t hold himself completely responsible and puts some blame on Susan. The way the fictional story ends is symbolic for the how it really ends for Susan. Tony finally steps up and kills Ray for what he did. He finally is able to defeat Ray even though he gets severely injured in the process. In the real-life story, Edward is finally able to defeat Susan by showing her how cruel and imperfect she is right before he stands her up. The film ends with a close-up shot of Amy Adams potentially realizing many truths. First, she could be thinking about how lonely she is and how she will never find love again. Remember how Edward stated “when you love someone you have to be careful with it, you may never get it again.”
Another possibility is that she realizes how cruel she is and sees the consequences of her cruelty. She understands that Edward is no longer a good and innocent man, but is scarred from his conflict with “Ray.” My belief is that it is both. The film ends with a close up of Susan as she realizes how depraved she is and how her actions have cost a man she loves everything he was.
Overall this film was a well-executed story that resonated and occupied my thoughts for days. It wasn’t the best movie that I’ve seen but I really enjoyed how the story, themes, and acting challenged how I see myself on the strength/weakness scale. It left me thinking about how I need to be strong and weak at the same time. This was a film that deserves multiple viewings to fully soak in the film’s complexities.