Review: ‘Nocturnal Animals’ Unfolds an Intense Neo-Noir Trifecta

"Nocturnal Animals" (2016) - Movie Review

Ain’t No Sleep for the Wicked in ‘Nocturnal Animals’

Vengeance comes in all forms and sizes. So often than more, we’re treated to a by-the-numbers revenge plot without style or substance as a foundation. Tom Ford’s neo-noir psychological thriller, Nocturnal Animals, is a refreshing curve-ball from scene one. Never let your guard down, even for a single instance.

Based on the 1993 novel, Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, Nocturnal Animals follows Susan (Amy Adams), a superficial socialite, whose life is clearly unfulfilled. She buries herself in her bizarre art gallery, surrounded by sycophants who clearly know her art is nowhere as near as they’re making it out to be. Her second husband (Armie Hammer) is unfaithful as she finds herself trapped in a deteriorating marriage. One day, she receives a manuscript from her ex (Jake Gyllenhaal) entitled Nocturnal Animals and dedicated to her. Without a sense of direction, the novel becomes her escape.

The way Nocturnal Animals is laid out is rather meticulous, though may seem too complicated to some. The narrative is interwoven by three different stories, each with metaphors and parallels to the others. In the present day story, Susan is a broken artist, who has difficulty sleeping and cozies up to her ex’s novel. The title itself is his nickname for Susan when they were together. From time to time, Susan flashes back to a happier time when she and her ex Edward were together. But that’s a downward spiral in itself as what she loved from the start she began to hate later on. The final component of Nocturnal Animals is the first-hand account of Edward’s fiction. A story within a story, that is where Ford delivers the film’s intensity greatest.

The events in Edward’s manuscript hit a bit too close to home for Susan as she reflects on their relationship falling apart. Granted it’s not a blow-by-blow retelling of what happened, rather a metaphor for her errors. Gyllenhaal plays dual roles as Edward in the film’s reality and Tony in the novel. He’s the only actor crossing over from reality to fiction. Tony, like Edward was married, but let’s just say that the fictionalized character was confronted with more brutal life events. To be perfectly honest, we learn more about Edward through his author surrogate than his real life character.

SEE ALSO: TIFF 2016 Review: Nocturnal Animals

At first glance, Nocturnal Animals might seem like a mess and without Tom Ford’s impressive feat of adapting Wright’s novel, it easily could have been. Even it’s bizarre opening, which could be labeled a James Bond intro on an overload of acid, might have turned some audiences away without the deeper metaphors in play. But without reading the novel, one can already conclude that this would’ve been a real page-turner back in the 90’s. There are plenty of occasions of uncomfortable, under the skin moments drawing viewers back. Fortunately, it never crosses the line of pretentiousness, though Ford does flirt with some of David Lynch’s style at times.

After a stellar, anchoring performance in Arrival, Amy Adams delivers once again in Nocturnal Animals as Susan. She’s no cut-and-dry protagonist. In fact, there’s plenty on the table that suggests an abundance of flaws. The deeper we dive into the film, the more we see a morally ambiguous ensemble. Both of Gyllenhaal’s personas are equally as striking. Once again, especially after his haunting performance in Nightcrawler that his versatility is pretty impeccable. Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are also to be commended as well, who both play a pivotal supporting roles in Edward’s fictional revenge story. Sadly, Michael Sheen and Laura Linney are utilized in blink-and-you-miss-it type roles.

Nocturnal Animals is one of those films that clearly has plenty on its mind and gladly delivers its sheer brilliance from start to finish. Ford has given audiences his best film to date, especially after the acclaimed A Single Man. But when it’s all said and done, it’s well worth analyzing and piecing together the deeper layers days and weeks after its release.

Written by
Matt Marshall has been reviewing films since 2003, starting with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." He specializes in home media, including 4K UHD, Blu-ray as well as box office analysis. He has a B.A. in Communications/Journalism from St. John Fisher College and resides in Rochester, NY.

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