Rated R, because it has a lot of really unnecessary nudity. I think it is a crime to skip past opening credits. But when we were sitting down to watch a movie that I convinced my wife to watch, that opening credit sequence just kept going...and going...and going. There is some nudity that ties to the plot, but that opening credit sequence is a lot. Also, the movie's atmosphere is just super dark and bleak. There's adultery, rape, murder, language, violence, cancer. It's got everything. This is a hard R.
DIRECTOR: Tom Ford
You can tell when I've made real headway in my Netflix DVD list when I start hitting movies that were made four years ago. It's either the movies are labelled "2019" or "2020" or they're ancient. It's the stuff that I put down in 2016 that got buried in the Netflix queue that are really impressive. I think I even remember why I threw it on the queue. This was one of the Academy Award nominees for best supporting actor I think. It's was for Michael Shannon. Listen, I have some really strong opinions about Michael Shannon. Okay, let's revise that sentence. I have really strong opinions about Michael Shannon that I need to reconsider. Because he was one of those actors that always made these lists of impressive actors and I was always confused. I had a hatred for both him and Timothy Olyphant, both of whom I now completely respect. Perhaps it was that they both had a bad role or something, but Michael Shannon is absolutely fantastic in this movie and I totally get why he was nominated for stuff.
I almost turned this movie off. When I throw these movies on the Netflix queue, there's some excitement there. I'm super jazzed to see something that is topical and water-coolery. But when a movie comes out after it is a talking point, I tend to completely forget about it. If I had seen the opening credits of this movie with its extremely sexual opening credits, I might have considered powering through it because I knew that I could at least have a moment of "What were those opening credits all about?" When the opening credits ended and the movie just wallowed in being bleak, I thought that this might be a quitting film. I don't like quitting movies. I don't like quitting TV shows or books or anything. I feel like I failed. But with Nocturnal Animals, I'm glad I powered through. I mean, it got real close to me not moving on. The only thing I knew about the film was that Amy Adams and Michael Shannon were in the movie, not the premise of the film. Once the central conceit showed up, I was on board.
It really is a weird movie. A few years ago, during my wife's annual MIT puzzle hunt, there was a puzzle that I figured out that involved stories within stories. These are the narratives that are about storytelling, so there's a whole meta-narrative happening in the background. With Nocturnal Creatures, I was so turned off with the melodrama of Susan and Hutton that when the crime drama of the novel began, I was instantly hooked. Despite both stories being brilliantly filmed, it was the high tension of the novel that really grabbed my attention. I desperately hope it isn't the primitive, stereotypical male part of me that can only graft onto action and mystery. But considering that the world of the novel is rich and dramatic, that made the world outside the text all that much more interesting. I know that I'm kind of crapping on the melodrama part of the story, a story about an artist who married the wrong man and has problems with her mother. By itself, those scenes feel very self-indulgent. People are sad because that is how their characters are described. But in context with a novel that Susan is reading, it makes all the more sense.
Perhaps I'm too in love with the idea of the glory of the artist. Susan as an artist feels cheap. While everyone is mesmerized with her art, she feels like a hack. (Note: I also think that she's a hack and I think we're all supposed to recognize that she's a hack.) Instead, there's something sexy about her ex's novel. Because he isn't famous and because he's still got that garage band authorship behind him, Edward's work seems fresh and vibrant. It feels like it lacks the empty tank that Susan's art displays. In this moment, because I'm talking about art, there's a Woody Allen vibe to everything going on in the background. It's not unlike Allen to use a meta-narrative to talk about the struggle of the artist. It's just that Nocturnal Animals doesn't read like Allen, despite the format of the film. Sure, Allen will jump between the "real" world of the artist and the fictional world of the text, but the tone of the film in both cases is so bleak. Even when the story plays around with the halcyon days of early love, the movie still feels pretty darned serious. I mean, it's not to say that Gyllenhaal and Adams don't have chemistry. They totally do. These performances are pretty solid. It's just that this never really feels like a romance story. It always is a breakup story, a breakup story without hope.
Part of me is terrified that I love the end because I love bummer endings. I know it is because it is an expertly crafted ending that really works with the themes set up throughout the piece. But having that moment of Susan being rejected is just such a spiteful and perfect resolution to the film. Susan is so confident when she is talking to her mother. Her mother is meant to come across as the absolute worst. We all rally behind Susan's courage when it comes to telling her mother off and defending her love for her husband. But that's why it is such a betrayal to both Edward and, subsequently, the audience. We know that Edward is right. It is crushing to know not only that Edward and Susan didn't work out, but that Susan's mother was dead right. It's like we all lost a battle that we oh-so-desperately needed to fight for. Because Susan gave up her ideals, it kind of is a statement screaming that love isn't real and that everything is a sham. So when Edward doesn't show up for the date, the novel becomes this damning revenge. It could either have been an olive branch of an attack upon Susan and the book works so much better as the perfect revenge.
It's so sad to see her sitting there, putting away whiskey after whiskey as the restaurant empties. In that moment, we think of all of those questionable moments in the meta-narrative. I adore that they straight up cast Isla Fisher as the avatar for Amy Adams. I always thought that they were the same person and I'm sure both actresses are sick of that comment. But those moments of extreme violence to Tony's wife and daughter are terrifying, especially considering that their stand-ins are alive in the "real" world of Susan. Having the two red-haired daughters be these stand in for female violence. As part of that, it is kind of gross. The movie is really just hovering around gross content and fragile masculinity. While I can identify with Edward and his frustrations with Susan, there's also something accusatory in a character like this. Because both Edward and Tony are both played by Gyllenhaal, it's interesting to see what Edward views in himself.
Before I really delve into that idea, I do have to comment on the dual ways to read Gyllenhaal's casting in the movie. The most realistic scenario is that Susan mentally pictures Edward as a stand-in for Tony. That is my headcanon, but it doesn't quite hold up. After all, Isla Fischer plays the stand-in for Susan in the book. So why doesn't Amy Adams imagine herself in the place of Tony's wife? The other read is that Edward places himself in the role of Tony consciously. Because Tony is the hero of the narrative, he could be painting himself as the wronged man who is the hero / antihero of his own life. Tony, for all the gray lines he crosses, still is the protagonist that people are meant to identify with. But that good guy role is almost fantasy wish-fulfillment. In Tony's version of events, he didn't lose his family. His family, instead, was taken away through violence. Because he is the clear victim of assault, it gives him free reign to make grandiose choices that reality would not afford him.
But the big takeaway is that Nocturnal Animals is this really complex story that asks you to make some investments to really enjoy it. There are things I really didn't like about the movie, but it all didn't matter when the story fully got going. It is this strong work that asks me to question the morality of the artist. It's a really solid film with great performances.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.