Nocturnal Animals (2016) by Tom Ford
Review by Ben Shull
It is rare that a framed narrative dares to crawl outside of its boundaries for fear of creating structural chaos. Whether it’s the comfort of a grandfather telling a story as in The Princess Bride or the suspense of tragic reflection as in Star 80, there is a sense of safety framed within the narrative, as though the story being told is merely a vehicle that drives the narrative present wherever the storyteller wishes, yet it remains contained in the shielding of the temporal present. This is a fundamental element of storytelling: the idea that a narrative can transport the audience — whether internal or external — away from its present reality in order to present a new one. It is this very aspect of narrative theory that Nocturnal Animals exploits so well.
Rather than pulling the audience(s) away, the framed story forces a confrontation. This is made apparent in the opening scene of the film. Susan Morrow, played by Amy Adams, is a postmodern artist whose most recent exhibit features nude, morbidly obese women dancing with pom-poms and sparklers in minimal patriotic garb.
One could make an argument rooted in postmodernity that this grotesque exhibit is wholly American; literally a full-frontal display of excess and pseudo-patriotic absurdity. But taking that same observation, as well as the smeared lipstick, blotted mascara, and botched toner, the exhibit takes on a more brutal, if not sinister, theme: ugliness. What is occurring up on the screens of both the art gallery and the movie theater for 116 minutes is ugly.
Susan was once married to aspiring author Edward Sheffield, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Throughout the film, she mentions to coworkers and friends that Sheffield would one day make it as a writer if he wrote “from the heart.” She describes his earlier fiction as being too contrived and stylistic, lacking the sustenance to propel his stories into greatness. This is a great point of contention within their marriage, as Edward uses Susan’s artistic sensibilities in order to gauge the effectiveness of his writing.
Whereas Susan seems to genuinely want to help, Edward takes her criticisms as being tied into her personal views on their marriage, wherein the question of “What exactly do you want?” takes on a double meaning. They both then decline into pitch black selfishness, the death-knell of any relationship. From an affair, to a clandestine abortion, to total silence, the marriage disintegrates. Edward does not appear in Susan’s life until years later when he sends her a transcript of his latest novel: Nocturnal Animals.
This is the ugly, black heart of the entire film. Layers of despair, hatred, and violence are revealed in every page. The novel relays a tale of rape, murder, and revenge in such chilling detail that it begins to torment its audience: Susan. There is something so distinctly gnawing and personal that it seems to go beyond its frame and into the psyche. As for the theater’s patrons, this is presented amidst the backdrop of stunning cinematography and superb acting. The crisp, trim, modern aesthetics in the bourgeois art world of the outer story clash with the dismal West Texas setting of the novel.
The score, composed by Abel Korzenoiwsky, is replete with a dauntingly eerie, Herrmann-esque motif that is woven throughout the film, helping to construct an atmosphere dense with loss and suspense.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once noted that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” That very question is the crux of this film. Evil is ugly, yet a blackened heart begets it again and again and again.