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Nocturnal Animals (2016)

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Score: 5/10

Genre: Psychological Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 57 min.

Release Date: November 18th, 2016 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Tom Ford Actors: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Jena Malone

A

rt gallery manager Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) admittedly exists in an indulgent world of wealth and luxury. But she is unhappy. Her husband (Armie Hammer) is constantly away on business; her relationships with her family are strained; and she derives little joy from her vocation, despite recent, positive critical receptions. When she receives a proof of her ex-husband Edward Sheffield’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) newest novel, entitled “Nocturnal Animals,” she begins obsessively reading it. As Susan becomes immersed in the terrifying story of a timid man and his family who are attacked on a remote Texas road, she begins to notice parallels to her failed marriage with Edward, and reminisces about the choices that have led to her current sorrowful predicaments.

The opening credit sequence, which is disturbing for both the excessive visual aberrance and symbolic for its notion of the varied interpretation of art, is almost too blatant in its message. It’s also rather easy (from a filmmaking standpoint), considering the inherent factiousness of the imagery on display. Its commentary is something that becomes more evident later on – and then disappointingly conspicuous when the purpose behind specific actions are literally spelled out on the wall (as another piece of art). “Join the absurdity of our world,” invites Carlos (Michael Sheen), a supporter of Susan’s latest endeavor, hinting at the distinct barriers that hinder Susan’s appreciation for her business successes. Disillusioned and bereft of picturesque romance, she struggles with nagging guilt and responsibility for the decisions that guided her to this fresh bout of listlessness. Fittingly, there’s some impressive film noir music reverberating over the isolation and emptiness of her massive estate.

With a premise like “Basic Instinct,” “Nocturnal Animals” insinuates that life imitates art. Here, however, it doesn’t quite follow that formula. Instead, the story within the story seems to be one long, overly complex, unnaturally manipulative bit of revenge fiction, designed solely to get a rise out of the reader, as if every detail hits a little too close to home for Susan, who grows ever more distressed by the equivalencies of her former life to the tragedy and chaos of the characters in the manuscript. Like “Breakdown” but without the sustained mystery, the second storyline is jarring, horrifying, and uncommonly exaggerated, all while Susan contemplates the unraveling of her personal life and the regret she relives in reading about events that echo her prior familial battles.

As the criticisms she aimed toward Edward are warped and chronicled in the book, the viewer is treated to psychological terrors, brief notes on fantasy versus reality, the nature of weakness and diffidence, and the ways in which feelings of inadequacy and doubt corrupt romantic commitments. A cheap jump-scare seems terribly out-of-place, while the significance of certain personas and actions are vague at best, but the sense of anticipation is nerve-janglingly high. It’s not always consistent, as “Nocturnal Animals” exhibits a few snags in pacing, even with the seriousness of the villainy and the aggravation of the sense of helplessness, but the build is appropriately angst-ridden. This is boosted by superb performers, some taking on the duties of dependable character actors, others retaining the fervency of engaging leads. The biggest problem, however, isn’t in the tone or the style or the delivery; it’s in the irresolute payoff and the timidity of intentions. It’s as if writer/director Tom Ford wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to say with these two interweaving narratives and the consequences on their participants, despite sourcing a basis from Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan.”

– The Massie Twins

 



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