Nocturnal Animals (2016)

A brilliant, genre-bending exploration of storytelling, revenge, heartbreak, transitions of power, and the nature of art, backed by a set of incredible performances, and some very lavish and stylish direction.

Amy Adams does strong work with what she’s given, but it’s Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon that really shine in the film, delivering two very memorable, very powerful performances. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was a highlight too, the first time I’ve said that about him. In a film so concerned with the human condition, the story and themes could have fallen flat with a less skilled cast, but the actors here all brim with talent and skill.

The film is a babushka doll, a western wrapped in a romance enveloped by a psychological thriller. These layers aren’t arbitrary; as director and screenwriter Tom Ford (and presumably Austin Wright, author of the novel the film is based on) examine the role of art and storytelling in our lives, the way we find and ascribe meaning to art, and the relationship between one’s personal experiences and art they either create or just experience.

Amazingly, each of the film’s three genres is handled with near-equal skill. The western segments edge out in terms of pure thrills, the tension handled exquisitely, and Gyllenhaal and Shannons’ performances utterly captivating. The romance segments are the slightest of the film, both in terms of length and impact, but are still conveyed effectively through some very skilled make-up work on Adams and Gyllenhaal, and visual work by Ford and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey that distinguishes that particularly story from both the western story influenced by it, and the primary thriller story that takes place in the same reality, but many years later.

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That primary story, the psychological thriller, is home to most of the nakedly stylish direction of Ford, befitting of his career as a fashion designer, tied up in questions of beauty and presentation. At times it seems beautiful just for beauty’s sake, but that’s precisely the point. I was very impressed with how distinct the three segments felt, and it was achieved without more blatant techniques like changing the type of film used for each segment (Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs”, a film also in three distinct segments, did this, transitioning from 16mm to 35mm to digital to convey the passing of time and development of character).

As the film progresses, the relations between the three segments become more and more clear, but the film never actually makes them explicit. There is never any exposition tying the segments together. There are visual cues aplenty, but the film never panders, and some of the parallels require reflection to realise and understand; they’re not all obvious “a redheaded character is partially a stand-in for a real redheaded person” type cues. The film feels completely committed to its singular vision; with no corruption or unnecessary articulation of its themes taking place.

The way the film explored storytelling and creativity as a means of coming to an understanding with great loss and heartbreak resounded very strongly with me. While petty and spiteful in many ways, some of the approaches to revenge the film took felt vindicating and extremely understandable. Whether this was a a product of Ford’s intoxicating direction utterly luring me in, or personal projection on my end, I’m unsure. Perhaps both.

Implicitly, I think Ford also suggests how male authors drawing from personal wells of insecurity and pain often lead to them creating violent stories through which their own issues are worked through (or, alternatively, recontextualised so as to position them in such a way the insecurities are transcended and not a personal failing at all), is an unhealthy way to deal with emotions, a form of wish fulfilment that breaks from reality and potentially sustains traits in the author that caused their issues in the first place. I feel like this was more an idea suggested rather than outright portrayed, as the transition of power the author character goes through is left open enough to interpretation to be read in ways other than purely malicious.

In any case, the film was a complete and utter triumph for me personally. I give it five manuscript pages, and a flat tire.

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