At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Nocturnal Animals “2016”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Neo-Noir Psychological Thriller/ Stars: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Ellie Bamber, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Graham Beckel, Bobbi Menuez, Zawe Ashton, Jena Malone, Neil Jackson, Kristin Bauer van Straten/ Runtime: 116 minutes

I think it should be said right off the bat that the slice of cinema I am reviewing today, 2016’s Nocturnal Animals, is one that could have been a serious misfire. In fact for a little while, as the beginning of this film got underway I really couldn’t help myself, but view this film with a fairly raised skeptical eyebrow since everything that I was seeing unfold before my eyes all came equipped with an aroma of uptight seriousness that honestly if it had been present through the whole film would have made the whole cinematic affair quite unbearably off-putting. Thankfully, I can safely say that was not a problem that this slice of cinema has to deal with for very long. Indeed that’s because this slice of cinema is gorgeous yet abrasive, a wee bit bleak and visceral, riveting, and completely arresting. More than that though, this is a movie that may feel disconnected on the outside, but on the inside is intricately tied together in its manner of regaling us with two distinct narratives that are in many ways telling the exact same story. As such, this slice of cinema is a raw and potent two movies in one that deals with certain emotions that are represented in different ways in both stories, but are still very much apparent in them. Yes it may be a bleak and very uncomfortable movie to sit through at times, but the cast is phenomenal and the helmsmanship is solid thus resulting one of the most riveting and distinct slices of cinema that the year 2016 sought fit to give audiences.

The plot is as follows: Following a rather….distinct opening credits sequence, we soon learn that what we are seeing unfold before our eyes is actually a new art installation at a gallery in Los Angeles. Yet for as seemingly joyful and freeing as the art on display or for that matter the patrons viewing it seem to be there is one person in the room who is perhaps the direct antithesis of that. That of course would be the beautiful and fashion-savvy yet very much incapable of relaxing gallery curator Susan Morrow. Yet even in the face of being blessed with beauty, success on a variety of levels, an equally as good looking husband, and a gorgeous estate, we see that Susan is still not satisfied. Worse yet she can’t for as hard as she has tried figure out why that is the case. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the concept of love is one that has not been a key part of her marriage for some time. Perhaps it’s the fact that for the past twenty years she has been so driven to be as perfect as possible that she’s starting to burn herself out. Whatever the case may be, there can be no denying that our heroine is at a point of crisis in her life. A point that is about to made even more excruciating with the timely arrival of a manuscript that is fixing to be published by her ex-husband, a writer by the name of Edward Sheffield. Upon opening it, we discover that the manuscript is for a novel entitled (what else?) Nocturnal Animals that is intriguingly dedicated to Susan because, as Edward says in a cover letter, she left him with the inspiration that he needed to write from the heart. Finding herself intrigued, not the least of which because they haven’t spoken to one another in a solid two decades, we see Susan decide to give the novel a read. A choice that sees us, the viewers, immediately plunged face first into the world of the novel where we are introduced to a man by the name of Tony Hastings as he is about to go on a car trip with his lovely wife Laura and their teenage daughter India. Things soon take a turn for the nightmarish however when on a desolate part of the highway late at night, the trio is terrorized by a gang of redneck psychos who then proceed to snatch Laura and India whilst leaving Tony for dead in the desert. Yet against all odds, we see that Tony is able to survive and soon embark, with the aid of an upstanding cop, on a frantic hunt for those he loves whilst also getting justice for this wrong by any means necessary. Of course, whilst this is going on we soon are also treated to flashbacks from Susan in regards to looks back at key moments during her relationship with Edward. Yet as she nears the end of the book, it isn’t long before we start to see parallels begin to emerge in the “real world” and the “fictional world”. Parallels that, by the time this film is done, will reveal not only what was the true inspiration for Edward to pen this story, but also reveal things about other people that may just show them for who they truly are…..

Now right off the bat I think it should be noted that if you’re the kind of movie goer who is going to read the above plot synopsis, become intrigued enough to give it a watch, and then after the credits have begun to roll decided to view this slice of cinema as just merely being “wonderfully insidious” or “darkly cunning” would be doing a pretty significant disservice to this slice of cinema in that you would be guilty of quite underselling the heck out of it. I mean make no mistake dear reader: this is one slice of cinema that most assuredly is novel both in how it is built and in the tone that it is operating, purposeful in terms of its tempo that it is operating with, and just above all being quite distinct from a lot of other slices of cinema out there that have even a handful of elements in common with it. Suffice it to say that film helmer Tom Ford manages to take what really looks like an incredibly complicated narrative and manages to showcase it to us in a fairly solid effort that not only gratefully does not make the viewer feel idiotic in any way, but instead chooses to place a fair degree of emphasis on both the visual compare/contrast as well as the main thematic concepts at the heart of this slice of cinema that are simultaneously in conflict with each other, but also allies as well. Thus yes this slice of cinema is, for all intents and purposes, a pair of distinct halves it should be noted that these halves also come together to form a fairly cohesive narrative with quite a few intricate parts at play in it. Yes, in all fairness, it might take getting to the first half of this slice of cinema for the tone and feel for the movie to be understood. Thankfully though once every component is set up and the various pieces at play start to become a whole lot more clear then just how brilliant this slice of cinema really truly is will *hopefully* follow suit for you as well. Suffice it to say that this may be a saga about tragic loss being presented and regaled to us in a pair of distinct manners that not only blur the line between reality and perspective, but also immerses itself quite deeply into the conflicting mindsets of a pair of main characters to say nothing of how they respond to circumstances that crop up, but this slice of cinema is still one that calls both its cast of characters as well as the movie goer to task for their quest for answers, their desire to be guided through a period of grief, and how they choose to respond to a chilly reality, but the even bleaker and extremely more visceral range of the human psyche.

At the same time however, it should also be noted that this style juxtaposition this slice of cinema is operating with is the component that will determine rather quickly whether this slice of cinema is for you or not. That’s because half of this film plays like a modern day bohemian character analysis that feels like a lost episode of Days of Our Lives with all the rich people drama, and then we get to the other half of this slice of cinema which literally feels like something set in the same universe as No Country for Old Men. Suffice it to say that these conflicting yet connected narratives couldn’t be any more different if they tried. At the same time however, it’s in the manner that these two still complement each other from both a pathos and tone point of view that really helps to distinguish this slice of cinema and provide it with a flavor all its own. Yes I can acknowledge that this slice of cinema would be an incredible film if it made the choice to only focus on Tony’s narrative all the way through. Indeed it’s the best kind of slow-burn, it’s top-notch in how it’s molded, it’s gorgeously filmed, and always feels rich in terms of both the narrative and the characters within it. At the same time though, the other half of this slice of cinema is so different right down to its rather…..distinct handling of the opening credits that it can’t help, but work toward establishing this slice of cinema’s identity. With that in mind, I must confess that even I have a difficult time in trying to explain just what in the world Ford is trying to pull off with the opening of this movie beyond perhaps showing the two sides to our main heroine’s world that the story within a story will soon complement. At the very least however, it’s a good litmus test for the rest of the movie since if you can make it past it then you will find a lot to appreciate and if not then yes it’s not fair that you aren’t really giving this slice of cinema a fair chance, but at the same time I can easily understand why.

Now the film’s helmer does have a wonderful talent for intricately sculpting this slice of cinema through the utilization of contemplative compare/contrast as well as subtly threading some truly thought-provoking material into this film on every layer possible. At the same time though, this is not the only big contributing factor to why I see this slice of cinema as the success that it is. Rather, the other big component that I feel has a lot to do with that would have to be the truly fantastic performances given by this film’s gifted cast at bringing their respective characters so vividly to life be they characters in the “real world” or in the “world of the novel”. This starts with Jake Gyllenhaal who does a wonderful job here in his dual roles of not just a scorned writer in the “real world”, but also as the suffering main character in the world of the novel that the writer has penned. Indeed Gyllenhaal does a masterful job of going in-depth with both characters through the utilization of both low-key constructed subtleties as well as broad overarching strokes in equal measure. As a result, he is able to get to the core of who both of these people are in a way that feels heartbreakingly real. Meanwhile I know it might appear that Amy Adams, in the quasi-sorta lead role of Susan, doesn’t have the most difficult role in this movie to portray. Yet it’s only after you watch the film that you realize she actually has quite the complex part to play here since not only does she have to react to what she is reading, but she also has to reflect on how it relates to events from her past as well. Indeed her arc in this film is, like the vast majority of the rest of the movie, brilliantly and intricately designed so that we are able to take a deep dive into her mindset at any given time and see how it relates to what is going on in the film. We also get terrific work here from the always enjoyable Michael Shannon who does a great job as a West Texas officer of the law in the story within the story that also acts as a surrogate for the viewer whilst also being the one person who has the capability to make Tony’s life right yet is just as capable of explaining just how precious life truly is as a way to see if Tony is really sure that vengeance is the answer to his problem. I also think it should be said at this time that I thought Aaron Taylor-Johnson was absolutely the best kind of horrifying imaginable as the main redneck psychopath in the story within a story and I really hope he plays more characters like this because he was brilliant in this. Yet even when you get into the fairly smaller roles in this from a wonderfully sleazy Armie Hammer as Susan’s unfaithful current husband to a terrifically low-key Isla Fisher as the character of Tony’s loving wife and all the way to Laura Linney and Michael Sheen as Susan’s uptight and very hard-nosed mother and a fellow upper-class friend of Susan’s who has passion for both art and….other things respectively there is still no less amount of either talent or acting skill on display. Suffice it to say that every single cast member in this not only knows their role like the back of their hand, but brings their absolute best to this and then some.

All in all I have no doubt in my mind that Nocturnal Animals is one slice of cinema that is quite complex, incredibly well-done, and phenomenally performed that I also have the incredibly strong suspicion is not about to leave my train of thought anytime soon. Indeed what Ford and this truly gifted cast and crew have managed to accomplish here is they have taken the stoicism that is part and parcel of the revenge genre of movie magic and skillfully and subtly weaved it into a cinematic analysis on both remorse for all of the mistakes you have made in the past as well as resentment that not everything in your life is exactly how you want it to be. Suffice it to say that Nocturnal Animals may be a slice of cinema that crawls under your skin and leaves you as heart broken and isolated as the people you are following, but trust me when I say it’s a cinematic journey that is still worth taking if you have the fortitude for it. On a scale of 1-5 I give Nocturnal Animals “2016” a solid 4 out of 5.