Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal star in a thrilling “story within a story” movie where we see two different, but related, heartbreaking tales unfold.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is wallowing in the lack of fulfillment she feels in her current life. She’s married to the handsome and successful Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) and owns a successful art gallery, but she’s not happy with it. She finds herself starting to think about the life she left behind. Susan was previously married to a struggling writer (is there any other kind?), Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Just as he’s started to come into her mind more frequently, she gets a package from him containing a novel that he’s just finished: Nocturnal Animals.
As Susan reads, the scenes from the novel are played out on screen. The story is about a fictional man named Tony Hastings (also Jake Gyllenhaal). Tony is taking his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) on a trip through west Texas. While they’re on a remote road, they are attacked by three men led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Things get increasingly intense as the exchange between the frightened family and the Texas wild men escalates. In the end, the family is kidnapped. Tony is separated from his wife and daughter and dumped in a quarry. He manages to get to the police station the next day. Along with Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), he returns to the site he was dumped at only to find that his wife and daughter have been raped and murdered. Bobby works with Tony to capture the men, but progress is slow. A year later, the trio robs a store. One of them is killed but one of them, Lou (Karl Glusman), is caught and leads Bobby and Tony to Ray. They bring him in but, because of internal politics, the case against Ray is dropped.
At this point, Bobby and Tony decide to take matters into their own hands. Bobby reveals that he is dying of cancer and just doesn’t give a —- and Tony wants to relieve the guilt he feels from not being able to do anything to save his family. They kidnap Ray and Lou, but Tony hesitates to kill them and they run. Bobby kills Lou during the escape and they split up to look for Ray. Tony finds Ray back in the same room where he raped and killed his family. Tony confronts Ray, who drops the nice guy act he’s been using the entire time. He taunts Tony with his own weakness while revealing his insanity and joy of killing. That finally pushes Tony over the edge and he shoots Ray. Before Ray goes down, he hits Tony in the head with a crowbar. Tony wakes up the next day with Ray’s dead body next to him. However, it appears that the blow to the head has blinded or somehow impaired Tony. He stumbles out of the house and into the desert where he falls on his gun causing it to accidentally discharge and kill him.
In the days that it takes Susan to read this book, it starts to intrude on her life. She is already prone to not sleeping, but the violent and personal nature of the book strikes her. The wife and daughter in the book seem to be analogs for her and her daughter. The violence strikes her so much that she calls her daughter just to make sure that she’s still okay. Later, she sees the visage of one of the rapists in a phone. While she’s experiencing all of this from the story, she is also reliving her relationship with Edward. She remembers their meeting, how her parents cautioned her against the romantic relationship, and her ultimate betrayal of Edward (which I won’t spoil here).
All of this seems to be leading Susan toward some kind of reconciliation with Edward. She reaches out to him to meet. He agrees to meet her whenever she wants. A time and place is set and Susan gets ready to meet her former husband, looking more like the romantic girl that he fell in love with than the pragmatic success she became. She waits at a restaurant for him for an entire night, but Edward never shows up.
- The opening scene of this movie is an art piece that’s being shown in Susan’s art gallery, but the entire thing plays out with zero context. The piece features four massively overweight, elderly women naked save for some sparklers, boots and patriotic hats. Then women are basically just dancing and jumping up and down in front of a red curtain in slow motion while Ludovico Einaudi music plays in the background. When the actual scene opens, all four women (dressed the same) are lying face down on marble slabs while gallery patrons walk around.
- Lots of people think that Amy Adams and Isla Fisher are the same person already, apparently this movie wanted to take advantage of that by casting Fisher to play a character that was meant to be an analog to Adams’ character.
What did I think?
I loved this movie, but it is like an emotional workout. You get yanked around into a bunch of uncomfortable positions and, at times, you question what you’re doing and why you’re doing it but, by the end, you’re glad that you did it.
The story of the novel “Nocturnal Animals” could’ve been a movie by itself. The story is sad and shocking and Gyllenhaal’s acting as a heartbroken coward is compelling. Not to mention that Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal of a mild-mannered psychopath, is the perfect kind of unsettling in the way that he covers over his sinister behavior with a congenial southern charm. Michael Shannon (and his mustache) are also great in this part of the movie. The only draw back to this story is that it is necessarily rushed since it has to split screen time with the story that’s happening outside of the book.
Amy Adams does a masterful job of carrying the parts of the movie that happen outside of the book. Because she spends most of the time by herself, she has to communicate a lot through silent expressions. The combination of her acting and Ford’s framing of the scenes, were more than equal to that task.
Ironically, the one part of the movie that I didn’t think was quite as strong were the Flashbacks to a younger Susan and Edward. These were the only scenes that Gyllenhaal and Adams shared. Their chemistry in these scenes was fine, but the path that their relationship was taking was so predictable that it felt like it could’ve been cut even shorter than it was. I also could’ve done without seeing the interaction between Susan and her elitist mother. Even though I didn’t love those scenes, I can forgive them being there just because they lead up to showing the “betrayal” between Susan and Edward. That was a moment that was handled subtly and beautifully. I also didn’t really expect it. I think I might’ve actually uttered a still, “Oh no” in the theater when I saw what was unfolding.
The same can be said for the movie’s ultimate ending. I thought the ending of the Nocturnal Animals story was good, but I thought the end of the story between Susan and Edward was great. To have Edward stand Susan up after everything that we see her experience paints him in a completely different light than the rest of the movie showed him. In their youth he is the hopeful romantic. In the story, his analog is cowardly and regretful. However, at the end of the story, he almost seems vengeful. Of course, there are a lot of ways to interpret the ending and the overall story. There is a ton to dig into in this movie from the standpoint of a artistic or literary analysis. Regardless of where that analysis goes, the fact remains that this is a really good, award quality movie.
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
- A compelling example of how to use
- Great performances from Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams
- Ending is open to interpretation
- Ending is open to interpretation
- Some of the more shocking scenes may repel some viewers