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Film Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

A Single Man is one of my favourite films. It is assured, exquisitely beautiful, and sad. It was an astounding debut film for director Tom Ford, who is better known for having been the stylish, sharp, and provocative creative director of Gucci before launching his own very successful eponymous label spanning menswear, womenswear, eyewear, perfume, and makeup. Nocturnal Animals is his second film and it stars Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal. Like A Single Man, it is adapted from a book: Tony and Susan by Austin Wright.

Nocturnal Animals jumps back and forth between Susan Morrow (Adams), a cold Los Angeles gallerist, and the manuscript that Susan’s ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal) dedicates and sends to her. While reading it, Susan draws parallels between the fictional story of a double rape and murder in West Texas and her life twenty years ago when she married and divorced Edward. The disturbed violence and anguish in the story unsettles her and, coupled with the trouble looming in her current marriage to businessman Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) and the feeling of disaffection with her job, Susan becomes unable to sleep. In the manuscript, Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal again), with Det. Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), hunts down gang leader Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who killed his wife and daughter and battles his own guilt in failing to save them.

A shockingly unsubtle and unpleasant tale, Nocturnal Animals is a real let-down after the brilliance of A Single Man. It is caustic, shallow, and unoriginal, although well-polished and amped up with the acting talents of Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon, and Taylor-Johnson. The dark, shiny, poisonous world of high-end art and the grimy, dangerous, and barren Texas noir setting are grafted together in an irritating way, sometimes as patently obvious as cutting back and forth repeatedly between the “real-world” and the “fictional” world. Any subtext becomes actual text in the most blatant way possible. Visual cues as unsubtle as a text-based black-and-white painting that reads “revenge” is remarked upon by two characters.

What’s worse than the unsubtlety is that what should have been Susan’s story really ends up being Edward’s/Tony’s. The female protagonist reads about and empathises with male pain even though she had lived through the truth of it and not the sensationalist version of events. Susan and Edward’s backstory and romance is extremely trite and objectively bad: she is rich and he is romantic. The female nude is objectified in uncomfortable ways as well, from the bodies of the two victims in the manuscript to the opening shots of enormously fat women dancing and preening at the camera. Generally, the misogynistic tone of the film is a huge minus. Don’t watch this, but definitely watch A Single Man again.

Ratings (out of 5):

Directing: 2.5

Story: 2

Acting: 4

Dialogue: 2.5

Editing: 2

Visuals: 3

Music/Score: 3

Overall Average: 2.7

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