[Screen It]

"NOCTURNAL ANIMALS"
(2016) (Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramatic Thriller: An unhappily married art gallery owner reads her ex-husband's novel and finds herself questioning her life while being drawn into his story that also plays out on the screen.
PLOT:
Susan Morrow (AMY ADAMS) is a middle-aged owner of an art gallery in Los Angeles who lives a life of luxury. But that hides the fact that she and her husband, Hutton (ARMIE HAMMER), are running out of money and that their marriage is failing. She wants to fix that however possible, but he shows no interest in reciprocating that desire. While he's off on business (and having an affair), Susan receives a draft copy of a book penned by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (JAKE GYLLENHAAL), who she hasn't seen for nearly two decades. He's dedicated the work, titled "Nocturnal Animals," to her and she sets out to read his creation.

In it, the Hastings -- father Tony (JAKE GYLLENHAAL), wife Laura (ISLA FISHER) and their teenage daughter, India (ELLIE BAMBER) -- have set off on a long overnight road trip through west Texas. When they encounter two cars traveling in parallel on the two-lane road, Tony gives a honk of the horn for them to let him pass, while India opts to give them "the finger" as they drive by. That doesn't sit well with the three men inside that car -- Ray Marcus (AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON) and his friends Lou (KARL GLUSMAN) and Turk (ROBERT ARAMAYO) -- who then pull alongside Tony's car and start harassing them, eventually resulting in a minor collision and then Ray forcing the Hastings car off the road.

The three men get out and proceed to harass and intimidate the family, and after changing the Hastings' flat tire, get physical with them. That eventually results in Ray and Turk kidnapping Laura and India, with Lou forcing Tony to drive the two of them in the general direction where Ray was headed. But when they get to the end of a dirt road, Lou kicks Tony out of the car, leaving him in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.

Tony eventually finds a home and calls for help, with Detective Bobby Andes (MICHAEL SHANNON) ending up assigned to the kidnapping case. From that point on, the detective does what he can to help Tony get justice against those who wronged him and his family.

As Susan continues to read the book, it dredges up memories of her past with her ex, both good and bad, including her snobby mother, Anne (LAURA LINNEY), warning her not to marry the writer who she viewed as weak. With her current marriage failing, and knowing she treated Edward badly in the past, Susan begins to wonder if she might get another chance with him.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Unless there's artwork on the cover depicting some representation of one or more characters in a book, I find it highly unlikely that many readers create the same physical vision of said fictitious beings as does the author. Of course, that's one of the beauties of reading in that you can create or cast whoever you want in the lead or supporting roles.

It also serves, however, as the means for frustration or disappointment when the book is turned into a movie and the people cast don't look anything like what the reader imagined (or sometimes even how the author described them). That said, and not being a novelist, I can't say if most authors want a clear cut view of how their characters should appear.

Or if they don't mind offering a nebulous description or even a completely blank slate for their readers to fill in as necessary or desired. But I do know of one novelist who definitely wants one reader to have an exact and precise idea of how his main character should be viewed. And that author is Edward Sheffield.

If that name doesn't ring a bell, it's because he's the fictitious novelist in author Austin's Wright's 1993 book "Tony and Susan," a multi-layered story of revenge that now arrives on the big screen as "Nocturnal Animals," which just so happens to also be the name of Sheffield's work in Wright's novel.

That several decades-old book has been adapted by fashion icon Tom Ford who's turned this into his sophomore directorial outing (following 2009's "A Single Man"). It's the tale of a woman (Amy Adams) who's unhappy in both her second marriage (to an uncaring man played by Armie Hammer) and chosen profession (a glitzy art gallery owner in Los Angeles whose latest show features older obese women dancing around in nothing more than parade hats, pom poms and such -- a striking visual that opens the film and lets us know we're in store for plenty of highly stylized symbolism courtesy of Ford and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey).

Out of the blue, Susan receives a proof copy of a novel penned by her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she divorced nearly two decades ago. She's had no contact with him since then, but being bored and frustrated with her life, she jumps in for a little hopeful escapism via the book that's not only been dedicated to her, but also named for how he used to describe her sleepless night. As she reads, we see her imagined view of the proceedings of the book in something that amounts to a movie within a movie.

In that, Gyllenhaal shows up as a dad who's driving his wife (Isla Fisher, looking a bit like Adams) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber) across a desolate highway somewhere in west Texas at night. An encounter with three troublemakers led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), results in what initially appears to be a case of road rage that escalates into something far more perilous. And that's because Ray and his buddies (played by Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo) harass and intimidate the family, with Tony the dad being too weak, nervous or simply cautious to fight back. All of which results in two of the men driving off with his wife and daughter and eventually leads to a detective (Michael Shannon) trying to help the distraught father get justice against the perps after things go from bad to worse.

As Susan reads that novel and we see it play out in an alternate universe, Ford also inserts various flashbacks to when Susan and Edward were reunited (from a childhood past) during the grad school portion of their lives. They ended up married, and then had that fall apart, all as predicted by Susan's mom (Laura Linney knocking it out of the park in her lone scene) who viewed Edward as a weak artist who wouldn't amount to anything, something he eventually figured was also his wife's view of him.

At first glance, it would appear that Edward's sending of the book -- and Susan being hooked by it -- is his way of saying "I told you so" in terms of him eventually making it as a writer. But as his work plays out on the screen, and as we learn of things that went down (and wrong) during their marriage, we quickly realize all that appears in the novel is symbolic of how he viewed having his wife (and child, a devastating development that's eventually revealed) taken away from him. Even deeper, it shows to what steps a supposedly weak character would go to get revenge on being wronged in such a way.

Yes, it's all sort of bleak and depressing (including the ending that's completely open to interpretation of what it exactly means), but the way in which Ford tells and visualizes the tale is nothing short of mesmerizing, especially once you realize what's going on and start putting all of the pieces together. The performances are strong across the board and despite the subject matter, tone and themes, the film is beautiful to behold in terms of how every shot looks.

While it certainly won't be for all viewers (the opening shot of the dancing ladies will quickly determine that), I found "Nocturnal Animals" fascinating to watch as its meticulously plotted tale of revenge unfolded, maybe not as I initially imagined it in my head, but certainly in a more than satisfactory way. It rates as a 7.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 28, 2016 / Posted December 9, 2016


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