Nocturnal Animals (Focus Features, R)

The unorthodox way of telling the story is the only thing that is cause for concern.


There’s a somewhat puzzling framing device going on here. Ostensibly, Nocturnal Animals is a heart wrenching tale of revenge. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Tony Hastings, the character written by Edward Sheffield (also Gyllenhaal) for his new novel, “Nocturnal Animals”, the manuscript of which he sends to his estranged wife, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). The novel concerns Tony tracking down the men who brutally raped and murdered his wife and daughter with the help of Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). As these events unfold, Susan becomes more and more engrossed in the violent mood and message of the book, and she begins to reminisce about the tumultuous past she shared with Edward.

On one hand, the framing device sets up all of the real challenges faced by the main character, but Tony becomes a protagonist due to the heavy focus placed on his story. Even though the events of the novel are clearly not real—the work of Susan’s husband’s imagination—it’s hard not to feel the anguish and torment within, mainly due to the intense performance by Gyllenhaal. For other audiences, the mere fact that the novel is a work of fiction will likely soften the many blows the revenge portion of the film lobs at them, but as I am a sucker for family tragedies and broken victims seeking justice, I was floored mostly the whole time. What’s clear is that we are meant to draw parallels between the content of the book and the feelings that Edward has about Susan (we never see Edward, aside from flashbacks). Consequently, Susan’s visible discomfort over his words invites us to speculate on how she feels about herself.

By setting up two worlds, we see the difference between pain in reality (albeit the upper-class, steeped in privilege reality that Adams’ character inhabits) and pain portrayed in fiction (albeit a fiction regarding the average joe whose world is truly torn apart). It’s an interesting juxtaposition because it puts much more ethos in the made up story. The drama in those parts feels far more real and moving, while the drama going on in the real world is melancholic, slow-moving, and unclear. Class division is also prominently implied, making the juxtaposition even more fitting. Adams’ performance as the embodiment of the bourgeoisie privilege she has rejected all of her life is appropriately conflicted and inwardly punishing. Other great, brief performances come from Michael Sheen, playing Susan’s rich art friend and confidant, and Laura Linney as her judgmental, southern belle mother.

So there is a fair amount to unpack and to think about afterwards. The unorthodox way of telling the story is the only thing that is cause for concern. A few shocking and mysterious images (particularly in the bizarre and risqué title sequence) will also leave a lot of people scratching their heads, which often leads to a general dismissal of what they’ve just seen as pretentious or weird for weirdness’ sake. There’s no doubt in my mind, though, that the weirdness is all a part of how the film needs to operate in order to get its themes across, and that’s perfectly fine with me. | Nic Champion

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