By Ben Thumm (Chicago, IL, USA)

 

“Killing people is fun.” These are the words said by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to Tony Hastings in the climax of Edward Sheffield’s novel “Nocturnal Animals”. Jake Gyllenhaal does the balancing act as portraying Edward Sheffield in real life compared to his fictional character in his revenge, thriller book. How we get to this turning point of intense drama and dialogue of Edward’s literary adaption is the weaving in and out of Susan Morrow’s past and present life experiences – who just so happens to be Edward’s ex-wife.

Fashion designer and icon Tom Ford juggles the duties of writing the screenplay and operating behind the camera. The screenplay is actually an adaption of the novel “Tony and Susan” which was written by Austin Wright and published in 1993 after being turned down 11 different times by New York publishers. Susan Morrow works as an esteemed art gallery owner in Los Angeles and Ford has little hesitation to get the audience familiar with her world and the type of ‘art’ she is dealing in. It’s up to you as the viewer if you can appreciate that or not in the opening credits. The next day at her luxurious estate just outside of Los Angeles she receives a package from her ex-husband, Edward, of many years ago.

As she tries to open the package she immediately gives herself a paper cut, which seems to be the tipping point of a main theme dedicated to symbolism and imagery throughout the film. The package ends up being his novel that will be published in the following spring and he wanted her to be the first one to read it before it does. Enter the tall and handsome Hutton Morrow, Susan’s now husband. She asks him why he never showed up to her exhibit last night as well as informs him of the gift she received from Edward. As their conversation progresses it’s evident that their relationship is very strained. Their conversations are very brief and show no interest in each other whatsoever. It’s very difficult to get invested in their characters and their relationship even when their whole relationship is a central piece to the structure of this story.

Susan begins to read Edward’s book that is ironically dedicated to her on the first page. The story starts with a family of three – a husband, wife and daughter on a road trip in West Texas. From the jump you see the similarities of the characters in the book compared to the characters in real life. Edward depicts himself as Tony Hastings and his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) is a mirror image of Susan. The Hastings’ immediately run into trouble that night on an isolated desert highway with three outlaws with no agenda but to terrorize. The imminent run entanglement with this trio results in a very high stakes, intense sequence that features standout moments from Taylor-Johnson’s character, Ray Marcus. Taylor-Johnson is hardly recognizable not only because of his hairdo and facial hair, but with his performance of an unhinged psychopath. It’s not one to be amused by such a vile character but some of his actions and delivery of dialogue between him and Tony, it’s kind of hard not to get a guilty chuckle out of.

Ford begins to navigate the audience in out of not only the book and Susan’s present day life but back to the chain of life experiences between her and Edward. This is where it starts to be a bit problematic for Ford. There has to be a steady balance to keep us intrigued in all three moving parts of this film. You have the novel that progresses very quickly with tragic events. Then there’s Susan dealing with the ramifications from reading the book that affects her personal life with work and her deteriorating relationship with her husband. There are also her flashbacks of her life with Edward and their downfall which leads to him writing this particular narrative. What seemed to fall flat were Susan’s relationships between Edward and Hutton. It really felt like there could have more done to add depth to each of their stories as well as their characters.

As we finally reach the climax of Nocturnal Animals there had been some help from detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). Aaron Taylor has the Golden Globe nomination (deservedly so) but Andes was by far my favorite character and Shannon continues to put in great performances one after the other. Once the film reached its’ conclusion and the screen went black, there were murmurs throughout the theater of “that’s it?” and “what kind of ending is that?” It was obviously clear that this ending may leave people wanting more or felt left hanging in a sense. I personally left the movie with conflicted and mixed feelings on the film overall – not just the ending. I am writing this a week later still thinking about the movie and my general consensus about it. It is definitely one of those films that will resonate differently from others after one viewing.

Rating: 3/5

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