So before seeing this movie, I had no idea what to expect or even what the story was really about. No matter how many times I stared at that trailer, all I got was Amy Adams looking intense while sexy, and Jake Gyllenhaal… doing… Gyllenhaal things. I don’t know, the plot wasn’t clear! Even descriptions about the plot online didn’t seem to make it sound very interesting. A woman’s ex-husband writes a book that’s violent and sad and she thinks it’s a proverbial threat against her? Eh… I guess there’s potential in that, but even if that was the story, the trailer wasn’t doing that idea justice. But then I checked the ratings. At the time, I think IMDb had it at an 8.0/10. That’s… pretty nuts. I guess this movie had something going for it if the masses were liking it. And despite no idea what the movie was about, I was still kind of interested. Both Adams and Gyllenhaal are reliably great actors and it tickled me that Adams was competing against herself since ARRIVAL (2016) was still out.
So let’s take a look at the cast. The movie stars Adams (ARRIVAL , ENCHANTED , and THE FIGHTER ), and Gyllenhaal (DEMOLITION , SOUTHPAW , and BUBBLE BOY ). In supporting roles, we have the underappreciated Armie Hammer (THE BIRTH OF A NATION , THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. , and THE LONE RANGER ), the ridiculously amazing Michael Shannon (MIDNIGHT SPECIAL , MAN OF STEEL , and MUD ), and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON , GODZILLA , and KICK-ASS ).
Now for behind the scenes. Writing and directing is newcomer Tom Ford, who only has one other directing credit under his belt, the 2009 film A SINGLE MAN. Composing the music is Abel Korzeniowski, reuniting with Ford from A SINGLE MAN, as well as having composed for BATTLE FOR TERRA (2007) and TV show PENNY DREADFUL. Finally, the cinematographer is Seamus McGarvey, known for THE ACCOUNTANT (2016), CHARLOTTE’S WEB (2006), and SAHARA (2005).
Overall, I’d say I was looking forward to it. Maybe not crazy excited, but I was intrigued. How did it fare against my expectations? This is my honest opinion of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS.
Susan (Amy Adams) is an art gallery owner. She’s wealthy and all, but has suddenly felt like her life hasn’t gone in the direction that she believes it should have. Even her marriage to her second husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) seems to be static now. But things start to change when she receives a package in the mail. A manuscript to a novel written by her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), which he dedicated to her. Alone in her home while Hutton is on a business trip, Susan begins to read Edward’s dark and violent story. At the same time while reminiscing about her once happy marriage with him, she begins to see that the novel might have a few glaring undertones and that the dedication to her may not be one intended for flattery.
For the first time in a long time, I’ve actually made a point to look at a few opinions of other movie-goers out there. Critics seem to like it just fine. RottenTomatoes has it at a 73% and IMDb continues a strong hold on to its 8.0/10 (both respectively as of 12/1/2016). However, IMDb reviews from the common folk seem to peg it as over-rated, pretentious, and not very good overall. And… yeah, from the first couple scenes, I didn’t have a very high opinion myself.
Quite literally, the opening titles are just overweight women dancing around stark naked in patriotic hats and sparklers. It’s… distracting, needless to say. Not that there’s anything wrong with naked overweight women, per se, every woman has tits and asses, but I really wanted to know where this film was going with this imagery. Already, I was pegging this film’s theme as, “the challenging of our perception of beauty.” But I’m literally saying that barely five minutes into the story. I chose to sit there and patiently wait for the story to unravel before damning it.
But again, the film wasn’t doing itself any favors from it’s opening scene with Susan and Hutton in their home. The dialog in this film is almost cringe-worthy. Both characters speak entirely in exposition. “You remember my first husband, Edward. He’s a writer now.” “I didn’t know he could write.” “It’s sad that he never remarried.” It’s so bland and grating that I’m pretty sure I bruised my own arm from grabbing it so hard trying to get through this scene. And never mind the awkward retelling of Susan’s back story, which we were going to learn via flashback anyway, the structure and direction of this scene seemed all over the place. At first, Susan’s upset that Hutton didn’t come by her gallery to show support. His apologies are half-assed, and there’s this hint of marital-problems that you know these characters have. But before they’re fully addressed, that’s when Susan breaks out the conversation about Edward. And before you have a chance to give a shit about that, it’s more marital problems! “I’m leaving on business.” “You just got back.” “I know, but this is important.” Ugh! This scene couldn’t have ended fast enough.
And then the next scene threw me for a loop. Do you realize how many celebrity cameos are in this picture? I counted!
Celebrity cameo number one: Michael Sheen! His scene is basically telling Susan that she’s being silly and should enjoy her life, but Susan remains unconvinced. This scene probably lasts less that five minutes and his character never returns. Wow. I was not liking this movie.
Finally, the story starts to unfold. In this case, quite literally. Susan gets Edward’s manuscript. After another awkward conversation between her and Hutton, this time over the phone, and a pretty non-subtle implication that he’s having an affair on her… and she seemingly uncaring about it, opens Edward’s book and starts reading.
This is where the movie ironically picks up. While Susan reads the book, the scenes in the book are played out for us. Gyllenhaal essentially has a dual performance as Edward, as well as his novel’s character, Tony (who has a beard, while Edward is clean-shaven).
Celebrity cameo number two: Isla Fisher (probably the longest cameo)! She plays Tony’s wife, Laura. Disclaimer: I actually didn’t know this was Fisher. Every scene she’s in, I’d have sworn on a stack of Bibles that Adams was doing a dual performance. Fuckin’ attractive redheads, man, they all look alike! I’m not used to Fisher not being in a comedy role! Anyway, Tony, Laura, and their teen daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are on a road trip. It’s night time and they come across some jack-ass hillbillies who ram them off the road. I gotta say, the stuff in this book is pretty damn good. It’s atmospheric, I can’t predict what’s going to happen, and Taylor-Johnson is phenomenally chilling in his performance. It’s over-the-top, sure, but his character’s insanity just makes the scene that much more unsettling. His character, Ray Marcus, tries to make their tussle look like it was Tony’s fault. Slowly, he gets the entire family out. Taunting galore, exchanged punches, this scene is pretty intense until it finally culminates into Laura and India getting kidnapped in their own car and Tony is forced to follow with Ray’s henchman, Lou (Karl Glusman).
Did you get goosebumps yet? Well the movie says, “FUCK YOU” and cuts away to Susan’s boring life. She starts saying how she’s thinking about Edward more and comments on his novel to a… friend? Co-worker? It’s not clear. Anyway, if we’re not getting glimpses of that boring-ass crap, we’re treated to those flashbacks of Susan’s relationship with Edward. It started off as all passion and romance. He’s a good kid, but he’s not from a wealthy family and Susan got ear-fulls of that from her mother.
Celebrity cameo number three: Laura Linney! Another disclaimer, I thought it was Joan Allen for some reason. Yeah… I’m pretty dumb sometimes. Anywho, Susan doesn’t care that Edward’s a struggling artist, she loves him! She wants to marry him! Everyone knows this story. But as time passes, she grows increasingly less happy with him as she doesn’t really think his writing is all that good and eventually wants to break up with him. Mostly for two reasons. One, she’s unhappy (covered that, I know), and two, she met Hutton in class and they begin their fling.
So from this point on, dear readers, I’m going to enter some serious spoiler territory. If you’ve had an interest in seeing this movie, don’t read further because it’s some seriously important shit. So CTRL-F and skip to “end spoilers” to see my overall opinion of the film. Without further adieu…
She breaks up with him and we learn that she was actually pregnant with Edward’s baby and she had Hutton accompany her to get an abortion. She thought Edward would never find out, but lo and behold who finds out.
The flashbacks end there, but interlaced, the audience is still treated to the best part of this movie, the novel.
Tony is forced into the middle of nowhere, no longer following Ray and his family and soon left stranded. He eventually arrives into the nearest town and gets the police involved, namely Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), who seems to take a particular interest in Tony’s case. Probably because not long after his involvement, they find Tony’s family. Both his wife and daughter dead… naked… and raped. Unable to let this monstrous act go, Andes cautions that while he’ll look for the assailants, cases like Tony’s could take months or even years to gain any headway, to which Tony doesn’t care. When they finally track down one of the goons, specifically Lou, they also track down Ray himself. Tony and Andes take them to a secluded house to confess their crimes at gunpoint. Ray escapes, but Andes kills Lou. Tony and Andes separate to track Ray down and eventually catches up with him in the same house where his wife and daughter were raped and killed. Tony shoots Ray a couple times, but Ray manages one good blow with a… fire poker? I couldn’t tell what it was, but Tony gets knocked out, waking up to find Ray dead on the ground and Tony stumbles outside… to die.
This concludes the book and Susan, who’s been emailing Edward about his story asks to meet up, to which he says okay. She arrives at the prescribed restaurant and waits for him, but never shows. And then the movie ends. Yeah, roll credits.
Oh, celebrity cameo number four: Jena Malone! She showed up once.
So I’ve yammered on about the story. Basically a long ass version of my summary. What do I actually think of the movie then? Sounds like I don’t like it much, outside of the reenactments of the novel. Well… actually, I think this movie is kind of brilliant. I truly think it’s deep and thought-provoking. I bet some of you are doing a double-take on what you’re reading here, going, “Hold on a sec, you were agreeing with us at first!” Well, yeah, I was.
The movie has an incredibly confusing and frustratingly horrible start. Awkward dialog, and an opening that still to this very minute made very little sense other than to be obviously symbolizing something when it’s really symbolizing nothing. But… by the end of the movie, my perception of the story completely changed. I think a lot of people who didn’t like this movie got it all wrong. Even certain websites that wrote out the synopsis of the movie didn’t quite get it right. I never got the impression that Susan thought that Edward was threatening her over through this book, or “torturing her” as some reviewers said. I think Edward’s book was a representation of his torture. Because of what Susan put him through, cheating on him, aborting their unborn child, that had to put the poor guy in a dark place. Hence the novel. My first thought was that Laura was supposed to represent Susan, but actually, I think Ray Marcus was representative of Susan. What happened to Edward? He lost his wife and his kid. Tony lost his wife and his kid. But Edward blames Susan for everything. In his tortured mind, Susan committed the ultimate heinous act that you can do to a man and probably saw the abortion of their child as murder. The ending of the novel represents how Susan is dead to Edward and, despite her wanting to catch up with him for probably old time sake, Edward should be dead to Susan, which is why he never shows up for their rendezvous. Maybe, in it’s own right, Susan is metaphorically dead. I remember one reviewer declaring that Adams looked like she was bored in the movie. I think that was point. While not a completely unlikable character, she is impossible to please. In one life, she had a loving husband, but a down-in-the-dumps lifestyle. In the other, she’s very rich, but has a very loveless marriage. In comes this book and she’s practically thinking about rekindling what she gave up on. I think Edward knew that and is essentially rejecting her happiness just like she rejected his so long ago.
So… do I love this movie? Yeah, I kinda do. Sure, the opening titles are… confusing and don’t do much other than exactly what it does, there’s star power that only appears for a few minutes, and many of the scenes involving Susan in the present are horribly written and uninteresting by comparison to what happens in the novel she’s reading, but it all does build-up to a pretty complex ending that has a ton of layers to peel back, and I’m sure I only peeled back a small portion. This is definitely a strangely structured psychological tale, but it’s phenomenal and compelling. Hell, I think I’d want to watch this a second time just to see how it all holds together. So… sorry, common folks, I agree with the critics on this one. It’s different, it’s engaging, it’s high concept, it’s pretty damn fresh. I don’t know how everyone else would like it, so I find myself conflicted on who to recommend this too. If you’re a fan of the cast, I think you’ll do fine. Both Gyllenhaal and Shannon own this movie. But if you’re in the mood for a different kind of psychological and dark story, then this might be up your alley. Personally, I think it’s worth it.
My honest rating for NOCTURNAL ANIMALS: 5/5