Hey, hey, it’s Saturday!
And that apparently means its time for a new review!
As we roll into the end of the year, the season for Hollywood’s heavy-hitters has more or less come to its end. And with the big blockbusters, summer or otherwise, out of the way, now’s the time of year where we get to see the more arty side of the film industry, and Nocturnal Animals certainly ticks all those “arty” boxes. But does Tom Ford’s second directorial feature live up to the expectations its fantastic ensemble cast and intriguing marketing promise?
An adaptation based off of the novel Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals follows art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who receives a package containing the manuscript for her ex-husband Edward Sheffield’s (Gyllenhaal) latest novel: a grim violent thriller that causes Susasn to reflect her own life and begin making some alarming connections.
As I only found out after viewing Nocturnal Animals, it turns out Ford is a former fashion designer. Knowing that as I do now, it certainly goes a long way to explaining much of the film’s very distinctive visual style. Ford’s eye for fashion has clearly translated to screen well, and Nocturnal Animals has no shortage of visually striking and memorably stark shots and visuals that often tend to pop out of the screen. Where Ford’s distinctive visual style really comes into its own is whenever we are following Susan in the real world: there is something decidedly mesmerizing about the way that Ford often splashes these scenes with very clean and blaring contrasting colors, creating a scene that wonderfully reflects the sterility and inherent artifice of Susan’s world and rarely fails to catch the eye. The world of Edward’s manuscript, by contrast, is grim and gritty, and each shot feels like its covered in a layer of blood and grime. Ford’s direction coupled with the cinematography gives each of Nocturnal Animals distinct realities a strong individual identity, which draws you in.
Beyond Nocturnal Animals’ visuals, its incredibly strong ensemble cast anchors the film. It goes without saying that both Adams and Gyllenhaal are excellent in their roles, with Gyllenhaal especially proving how absolutely compelling he can be when portraying emotionally vulnerable men. Aaron-Taylor Johnson also manages to gives a great performance as Ray Marcus, imbuing what is a fairly surface level and cliché character a great deal more nuance than what they were owed. But for me, the show-stealing performance was the criminally under-utilized Michael Shannon as the grizzled sheriff at the center of Edward’s novel. Shannon’s performance hit all the right notes, and for me, he was the most consistently entertaining and compelling actor on screen, often proving to be the absolute center of attention in whatever scene he was in. The rest of Nocturnal Animals’ cast gave fine performances, although they were often overshadowed by the top names that were on board. This was particularly true of poor ol’ Armie Hammer, who is relegated to a fairly forgettable role that was given very little time.
But while Nocturnal Animals provided much in the way of striking visuals and strong performances, the film began to run into problems with its script. Whether it was the often awkward prospect of adapting from one medium to another or just Ford’s screenwriting, Nocturnal Animals stumbled greatly in regards to its writing. Much of its early scenes are laden with awkward and clunky blocks of dialogue that often commit the “telling not showing” crime, and proved incredibly distracting for me. That aside, much of the film’s cast of characters often felt under or poorly developed. The part of the film that was most guilty of this was, ironically, the framing narrative around the narrative of Edward’s in-universe manuscript. Many of these “real world” scenes often consist of fairly static and lengthy exchanges of dialogue between two characters just explaining their characters and motivations to each other, and it doesn’t make for particularly gripping scenes or interesting characters. That said, the parallel narrative of Edward’s manuscript proves to be the much needed oomph to balance out these much less engaging scenes, and the world of the manuscript often proves to be much more gripping. It also doesn’t help Nocturnal Animals too much that much of its thematic elements felt like they didn’t quite come together by the film’s end: even though I saw where things were going, the lack of meaningful character development across the board meant the conclusion felt somewhat abrupt and left me with more a feeling of dissatisfaction than anything more meaningful.
Nocturnal Animals is a visually fascinating film that is anchored by some very strong performances from its great cast, but it struggles to deliver an equivalent excellence on a script level. Still, my frustrations with the script aside, Nocturnal Animals still manages to be interesting enough to be worth your time, even if it doesn’t quite hit every mark.