Nocturnal Animals is far from a perfect #movie. But it is extremely interesting and really easy to miss the true plot if you focus too much on the surface. Director #TomFord makes this hard to do with his artistic filmmaking style. He will leave you looking for things that aren't there, because this movie cannot be understood solely through sight. It requires a deeper understanding of art imitating life within an art form imitating life. The whole affair is slightly confusing with three intertwining plots, but it is the art within the art that makes this film a must-see.
*Warning: Spoilers ahead. I recommend watching the film before reading.
Susan (#AmyAdams), a high-end art dealer, has become bored with her life of luxury. She begins to recognize and mourn for the loss of creativity and optimism that she traded in for the mundane life of the wealthy. That is, until, she becomes completely immersed in a novel manuscript sent to her by her ex-husband, Edward (#JakeGyllenhaal).
The story that Edward wrote drives the film, portraying a young family, Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), his wife and their daughter, driving through West Texas. On a long, dark road, late at night and far from cell service, they are harassed by a trio of men equally sleazy and creepy, led by Ray (#AaronTaylorJohnson). After a nerve-wrecking game of drive-around, they run Tony's car off the road. In, perhaps, the most discomforting set of scenes in years, bad turns to worse as Tony watches his wife and daughter powerlessly stripped from him. While dealing with the loss of his family, Tony works with the sheriff to go whatever distance is necessary to seek "justice" (aka revenge).
The storyline that ties it all together is that of the specifics of Susan and Edward's ending marriage. Eventually becoming bored with Edward's sensitivity and creativity, Susan seeks a future with a more concrete sense of success. She meets a man of wealth in graduate school, Hutton (#ArmieHammer), for whom she leaves Edward. Not before Edward sees them together, though, right after Susan aborted her pregnancy from Edward.
The entire movies seems odd at first. It is first presented like a commentary on the discrepancy between the dulness and realism of the wealthy and the freedom and uncertainty of the expressionist. But the stories that unfolded seemed crucially painful for that to be the sole theme. Maybe it was director Ford's intention, but I found myself frequently mad at the movie. Mad at was he was doing to Tom. Mad for pulling me away from the story of the book. Mad at what I thought was an indie-style ambiguous ending.
It was also odd to see Gyllenhaal playing two different roles in the same movie. Like most props in the movie, this casting decision was done with the purpose of cluing the audience in to what we were actually seeing. The key to following the film, and forgiving its confusion, is knowing this: the novel serves as Edward's catharsis, a metaphor for the powerlessness and pain he felt as he lost his child and lost his wife to another man.
In reality, that man is Hutton, a perceived as respectable man, born into wealth and working hard to keep the perspective of his high status. In the novel, however, that man is Ray, a role that Taylor-Johnson is so well enmeshed, that I completely forgot it was him while knowing he won a #GoldenGlobe for the performance.
Set-up from Susan's perspective, you're lead to believe you're seeing her story, but the film is 100% Edward's story and Susan is just the benefactor. In many ways like the concept of Christopher Nolan's Inception, Nocturnal Animals is a story within a story that is a surreal portrayal of a real story. What kind of story, though? Well, a seemingly misplaced portion of the movie provides that answer, as does the ending. While finding confusion or frustration at the ending will be common, it makes all the sense once you recognize the film not as a redemption story, but one of revenge.
In a scene in which Susan is meeting with a museum board, she stops and focuses on a painting of the word "REVENGE," which is the first nod. Secondly, the novel is meant to emulate the real life story within the film, and it ends with Tony exacting his revenge for the taking of his family. Edward pulled Susan back into the type of life she had with him, exciting, passionate, not dull, through the reading of the book. We see Susan slowly cutting the strings to her current life, prepared to go back to the life she had with Edward. But when she goes to meet him, he never shows up. It is Edward's "mic drop" moment, of how heart-wrenching it is to have everything you wanted taken from you and leaving you powerless. Let us not overlook that the novel was dedicated to her.
Part of me thinks it would have been a more effective film if it ended after 30 minutes. I have watched torture, cannibalism, and other extreme forms of violence, but the discomfort and tension echoed through the scene in which Tony's family is harassed and his wife and daughter are taken was heart-stopping. In an industry currently dominated by comic blockbusters, for those 15 minutes, Animals was a well-needed reminder of how engrossing art can become.