Friday, December 23, 2016

Nocturnal Animals Review

*spoiler alert*

Nocturnal Animals is a new flick directed by Tom Ford and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, and Michael Shannon. Critics have generally gone gaga over the movie, citing fine acting and a layered story offering themes of violence and revenge and betrayal, as well as how life decisions can come back to haunt us.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Venice International Film Festival. Academy Award nominees Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal star as a divorced couple discovering dark truths about themselves.

Nocturnal Animals cuts back and forth between several narratives. Susan (Amy Adams) is living in an unhappy marriage and unsatisfied with the life she has made for herself. When a manuscript entitled Nocturnal Animals unexpectedly arrives from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), Susan reads it.

The book’s plot concerns a man whose wife and child are brutally murdered, with Gyllenhaal also playing Tony Hastings, which eventually leads to a quest for revenge against the killers. While Hastings eventually kills the man responsible, he ends up injured. Meanwhile, we also are privy to flashbacks of Susan’s first meeting with Edward, her failed marriage with him, and the abortion she had of his child after she left him for another man.

The film ends with Susan emailing Edward to set up a dinner meeting at a restaurant. Susan meticulously adjusts her appearance before heading out. She waits at the restaurant for hours. Edward never shows up. End credits roll. What does it all mean?

I think it’s clear Edward’s book is about his marriage to Susan. The murder of Hastings’ wife and child signifies Edward’s wrenching grief at how his own wife and child were taken away from him. In Edward’s eyes, when Susan left him, she did so mercilessly. She never appreciated his work, never gave their marriage a chance, and then aborted their child while trying to keep him in the dark about it. For Edward, these events were as traumatic as a double murder.

The events of the film Nocturnal Animals are all about Edward’s revenge on Susan. The first stage is to create something brilliant in the face of his ex-wife’s lack of faith. Many years after their marriage, Edward has emerged from obscurity with a book that Susan describes as “violent and sad.” To the audience experiencing the book onscreen, it’s chilling and reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock.

But what of the film’s ending? After all we’ve seen, how is standing Susan up for a date supposed to be satisfying in any way?

I think it signifies that Edward just does not give a damn about Susan anymore. We have no idea if Edward knows about Susan’s unhappy life situation (if he does, then his revenge is all the more punishing). But he does likely know that his book Nocturnal Animals is a hit, and that talent and brilliance is something Susan will be attracted to. So he dangles in front of her the opportunity to meet again and possibly rekindle old flames, only to allow her to come to the slow realization that he never intended to show up. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” Thus, the film’s ending is a much more hurtful form of revenge than anything Edward could actively do to hurt Susan.

In an interview on Jeff Goldsmith’s Q&A podcast, writer/director Tom Ford affirms this interpretation:

Does he not show up as an act of revenge, or does he not show up because he just literally can’t face her? [The ending] seems the correct conclusion to me, because she falls in love with him again through reading [the novel]. She is liberated, by the way, at the end. This has been painful. She’s taken those rings off. She’s wiped off that lipstick, and she is not going back to that fake life. We don’t know what the next chapter is for her, but [the previous] chapter is over.

An alternate theory is that Edward actually kills himself at the end, and that this is his final act of revenge on Susan. In this theory, his suicide is why he doesn’t show up for the dinner date. The rationale is that since Hastings kills himself in the book, Edward probably killed himself in real life.

This is an unsettling movie and not just because of the violence. Violence is a hallmark of Hollywood entertainment and a part of the human condition. This story, however, uses fictional violence as a motivator to contrast the characters. The main character struggles with his own cowardice and inability to act. The story is unsettling because of the revelations of past decisions ultimately leading to unhappiness. Who has not ever questioned the wisdom of their choices?

There is a lot to this movie. Good acting, decent script. I'll give it a 4 out of 5 stars.

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