Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Dir. Tom Ford. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Aaron Taylor-Johnson

Nocturnal Animals checks off boxes for me, in the sense that it does things which typically annoy me in a movie. It can’t decide which part of its plot it’s most interested in and sacrifices both pieces for it. At a little less than two hours, Nocturnal Animals comes in about half an hour shorter than a movie like that really ought to be. The ending feels rushed on both fronts, and of course it’s Susan, who was only our gateway into feeling, who gets short shrift. Tom Ford uses enormous color contrasts to show a difference between the Susan plot (black, gray, chrome) and the Tony plot (blue, orange, lens flare), which is more glaring than useful. Before this movie, I did not know that I could be annoyed by every single scene Michael Shannon was in, but now I know that it’s possible. Y’all were concerned about 3D movies, when the real problem was the existence of digital colorists all along.

Speaking of Michael “It’s Time for the Urn” Shannon, though, Nocturnal Animals has one of the best casts of any American movie in the past few years. It’s not merely that everyone with a name in this movie is a Good Actor, but that each of them has been cast to perfection as well. Amy Adams has been starring in pictures for a little more than ten years now. Working and reinventing and remaining on top of the depth chart into a second decade is what separates the Jean Arthurs and Teresa Wrights of the world from the Bette Davises; Adams, I hope, is going to get at least the second decade. She has been working more and more with women whose emotional lives are firmly on the inside and break out far less frequently for others to see. Susan is exasperated here and there, but I found myself much more interested in the quiet way she puts on her enormous glasses, or the reconsideration of her dark lipstick, or slightly accented murmur of hers across the table in a restaurant. Jake Gyllenhaal, who has been in the spotlight longer and more adorably than Adams, has reinvented himself in the past few years with some performances angling on his strength. We’ve come a long way from “Does it bother you that people call you ‘Retard’?” Gyllenhaal; maybe they add extensions to his jaw for dramatic work now, but increasingly the clean-shaven Gyllenhaal is a threatening fellow indeed. Not everything for both of them has been a winner – I need to see another comeback boxer story like I need to pay twelve bucks to see that David O. Russell has been out of ideas for the past decade – but they have both hit in terribly interesting roles. Nightcrawler is stunning largely because of Gyllenhaal, while Big Eyes and Arrival have benefited as much from Adams as from any other single part of either movie.

They are supported by at least three people who have shared the screen with Kevin Bacon at least once: Shannon, who is almost boringly strong, as well as one-scene players Laura Linney and Michael Sheen. Linney and Sheen do perfectly well, as do fellow one-scene folks Andrea Riseborough, and Jena Malone, but they are ornaments on the Christmas tree. Linney in particular feels like a weird choice; she plays Adams’ mother in one scene despite being just ten years older than Adams. It’s one of the choices in this movie that break us out of the narrative and put us back in our own minds, and this is not a movie that functions best when we’re wondering about how old Linney is. Malone stands out to me more than anyone else in that group playing Adams’ acerbic co-worker.

In The World According to Garp, Garp’s third novel is written after his younger son dies in a car accident which, long story short, relates to an affair his wife is having. That novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, is excerpted at some length in Garp. A married woman is kidnapped and raped by a lecherous farm boy, but the woman is resourceful; she manages to take the boy’s knife and guts him like a pig while he’s raping her. Her husband, we’ll find out later, does not take it well; he becomes increasingly worked up, more about the fact that someone else has had sex with his wife than anything else, until it causes the collapse of his entire family. It’s hard not to watch Nocturnal Animals and see a plot with the same general blueprint. Tony (Gyllenhaal) is taking a long nighttime drive through West Texas with his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter, India (Ellie Bamber). Two cars are ahead of him, each in one of the two lanes, and both are cruising slowly. A chase ensues as Tony tries to get around them and then infuriates one of the drivers, who gets him off the road. It’s a scene that ends with Ray (Taylor-Johnson) screeching off in Tony’s car with Tony’s wife and daughter still in there as Tony tries to catch up in another car, supervised by one of Ray’s pals. Later on, the police show him what happened to his family: murdered, raped, and left entwined on a couch in the middle of the desert. (Shannon plays this movie’s answer to Bensenhaver, Bobby Andes. Like Bensenhaver, who disposes of the rapist’s condom so there won’t be any questions, Andes’ idea of justice is very different from what the law prescribes.)

What we discover later on is that the story has some connection to Edward (also Gyllenhaal) and Susan’s short-lived marriage; it’s hinted that Edward, an aspiring writer when he finds out that his wife is cheating on him/secretly aborting their child, picks up much of his axe to grind in writing Nocturnal Animals in that moment. It’s no mistake that Laura is as beautiful and redheaded as Susan, nor, as we find out later, is it an accident that Susan and Edward have their own redheaded daughter. Nor is it totally shocking when Ray calls Tony “weak” in a climactic scene, since that’s the same kind of language that Susan and her mother have used about Edward. The Bensenhaver-style plot is the one which turns out to be the primary one, even if I think the filmmakers’ would have argued that, for lack of a better corollary, the Garp-style plot is the one which is more important to the movie. This is why I’m sure that this movie should have been longer, not shorter. The movie wants us to connect a great many dots about how Edward turns himself into Tony, or how Susan is in Laura and Ray alike. Instead of giving us a good way to work out the connections, it continues to tell Tony’s story in some ways without reference to Susan; Susan simply looks shocked or drops the book or something like that. To me, it’s the biggest disappointment of the movie; it’s just too impatient to tell an entire story.

Despite how good Gyllenhaal and Adams are, I think it’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson who saves the movie. He is one of the rare supporting actors in Nocturnal Animals to show up with any kind of frequency, and while some of his performance is merely fine, it’s that early scene that casts a powerful shadow over the rest of the picture. Ray is frightening because he is mostly unpredictable. He is smart enough to make Tony feel some class-related guilt, which puts him off-balance. So do his frequent accusations that Tony tried to drive away from the scene of an accident, which is literally if not spiritually true. He acts scary at the outset and then, out of nowhere, is concerned for the welfare of Tony’s tires. One of these is flat, he says. We’ll fix it for you, we have the tools. Do you have a spare? Then the menace comes out again, as full-blooded as ever. You’re going to have to get your wife and daughter out of the car; we can’t jack it up with them in there. The tire gets fixed, but all the while it feels like a Sophie’s choice. Either the car is too crippled to drive out of this situation (which Tony, incidentally, tries to do) or two vulnerable women are out in the open, easy prey for the three powerful men surrounding them. Ray and his buddies act like a python: they are always tightening their grip. At one point they look like they’re about to rape India in front of her parents, but then all of a sudden they don’t. Ray and his group are always in charge. Even when they pretend not to be, there’s no question that from the moment Tony got within a mile of Ray’s car, there was no other way that this could end. Nothing could be scarier than knowing in the aftermath that there was nothing else you could have done to avoid this result.

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