Nocturnal Animals (US 2016)

Still life? Amy Adams as Susan seems like a statue in her art gallery, posed at the opening of her new exhibition next to one of the naked women hired to act as exhibits.

Still life? Amy Adams as Susan seems like a statue in her art gallery, posed at the opening of her new exhibition next to one of the naked female dancers hired to act as exhibits.

This film has been roundly praised in some quarters but I’m not sure I’m so enthusiastic about it. Director Tom Ford, who was responsible for the similarly acclaimed A Single Man (2009), is best known as a designer, starting in ‘interior architecture’ and moving on to fashion before making A Single Man. That film’s been sitting unwatched on my hard drive recorder for a while and I’ve noticed that some critics have argued it was more about style than substance. Nocturnal Animals has generated some similar comments and I’m afraid that’s my reaction too.

‘Nocturnal Animals’ is the title of a ‘story within a story’ – a form of mise en abîme which also occurs in cinema when fictional characters might stage a play/make a film which in turn reflects on the lives of the fictional filmmakers. In this case, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a first novel, written by Edward, a man in his late 40s, and posted as a manuscript to his ex-wife. She is Susan Morrow, a college lecturer, now a woman with a family and married to Arnold, a surgeon. The lead character in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is Tony, a maths professor who becomes the victim of an altercation with three men on a remote road at night in Maine which also threatens Tony’s wife and teenage daughter. Susan starts to read the novel and can’t stop. The author of the ‘framing novel’ entitled Tony and Susan was Austin Wright, a Cincinnatti Professor of English. It was his last novel, published in 1993 and he died in 2003. Although the novel received praise from critics on publication and was sold for a possible film adaptation, it didn’t sell books in the expected numbers and it wasn’t until it was seen as successful in the UK that it was re-published in the US in 2010. At this stage, Tom Ford was able to work on an adaptation, seemingly creating his own adapted screenplay with some significant differences to the original novel.

The film itself is now also called Nocturnal Animals and this title is presented as referring to Susan during her time with Edward. It also seems to refer to her now as she reads Edward’s manuscript over one weekend when she can’t sleep (and the novel is dedicated to her on the first page of the manuscript). The major difference between Wright’s novel and Ford’s film, however, is a change of setting, including the occupations of Susan and her husband. In the film, Susan (as played by Amy Adams) is a high-profile gallery operator focusing on modern art and her husband Armie Hammer is some kind of ‘money man’ who is clearly spending a weekend away with a mistress when supposedly on business. This is the weekend when Susan reads the manuscript. The manuscript has also changed a setting with the highway altercation now in the wastes of West Texas (where there is no mobile phone signal).

The gallery sequences are filmed with great attention to interior design, lighting etc. and if you like this kind of thing no doubt you will find it interesting – I don’t enjoy this clinical, hard design style. Worse, an actor as engaging as Amy Adams seems imprisoned in the set with all the life drained from her. I like Amy Adams and I like Jake Gyllenhaal, but both seem miscast here, although Gyllenhaal, who plays ‘Tony’ in the manuscript story does OK in that role. The film has three parts, the ‘now’ of Susan over the weekend, the ‘telling’ of the story she reads and her flashbacks to her time together with Edward (also Gyllenhaal). These flashbacks aren’t really credible. I haven’t read the novel, but various reviews suggest that Susan and Edward broke up 25 or 20 years ago, after grad school, which would put them in their late 40s. In the film, Susan appears to have been married to the Armie Hammer character for at least 19 years because she has a daughter at college. Hammer is not even 30 but playing Susan’s husband, whereas Adams is 41 and Gyllenhaal 35. It’s a stretch to ask Amy Adams to play 25 and Hammer is completely wrong (unless I’ve misunderstood the plot).

West Texas, the setting for the novel Susan reads

West Texas, the setting for the novel Susan reads

The most interesting part of the film is the West Texas story which features a standout performance by Michael Shannon as the local detective who investigates what happened and cajoles Tony into an unwise adventure. This narrative is realised as a genre piece recalling both the hard-boiled noir of Jim Thompson and various horror stories and crime stories. It’s beautifully photographed by Seamus McGarvey who handles all three narratives very well in visual terms.

From what I’ve read about the novel, I can imagine that it works well. I calculate that Wright must have imagined the ‘now’ of his story as the early 1990s, meaning that Edward and Susan were in graduate school in the late 1960s. I think that would make a difference to the story. Again, Tony in the novel’s story, as a maths professor who is intellectual rather than instinctive, reminds me of the Dustin Hoffman character in Straw Dogs – though he doesn’t have Hoffman’s resilience as depicted by Peckinpah. I do wonder, though, whether Wright was influenced by Straw Dogs or Gordon Williams’ original novel. Tony’s purpose in sending the manuscript to Susan is as a kind of revenge – putting Susan through the torment that he felt when she left him all those years ago. As she reads the story Susan sees herself as the wife and mother in the car (and the mother is played by Isla Fisher, looking so similar to Amy Adams that some audiences have been confused). But also important is that Austin Wright, an academic literature scholar, writes a novel in which a maths professor with literary ambitions sends a genre novel to a college lecturer – a revenge scenario couched in the framework of literary theory/praxis. None of this works when Susan is represented as an art ‘gallerist’. I found her character emotionally stiff and therefore the interconnections just didn’t work for me. The other puzzles are firstly why Ford casts four British actors, three of them as art world denizens – is it something about Brit Art? There is a Damien Hirst piece in the film and also something by Jeff Koons and I suppose the ‘now’ sequences in the film might be seen as some kind of satire on the art world. But I’m not up to analysing that. I recommend an article from ‘Flavorwire‘ for an informed lowdown on this aspect of Nocturnal Animals. There is one other aspect of the film that I haven’t mentioned – Laura Linney’s role as Susan’s bourgeois mother who tells her daughter not to follow the course of her ambitions after graduate school. I’m not sure if she is a character from the novel or one of Ford’s inventions, but she works to repress poor Susan still further.

I realise I’ve spent over 1,000 words on a film I didn’t really like, but I guess that means it is of some interest. I think I’ll now have to read the original novel to see whether my hypothesis was correct – i.e. that it works more effectively. I can also then resolve some of the conflicting points about the characters that appear in reviews.

(Nocturnal Animals was screened in Screen 14 at the Vue, Leeds, The Light – not sure when this screen was added but as a small ’boutique’ screen it is quite different to the larger screens originally built for Ster Century and it has a screen shaped for ‘Scope)

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4 comments

  1. John Hall

    If you want a really boutique screen, Roy, try the Minema screen at the Curzon Bloomsbury (Renoir) where I saw the fantastic Polish miserabilism of United States of Love last week. Highly recommended. Also saw Nocturnal and enjoyed it, but as I think you were saying, it was a bit meh apart from Michael Shannon who can elevate anything he appears in.

  2. keith1942

    Accurate commentary Roy. I did not like ‘A single man’ nor this: though this film is more interesting.
    ‘Boutique’ is flattering Vue’s screen 14! Apart from anything else the lights do not go down properly and as they are in the ceiling they remain distracting. Is Leeds on a vendetta, first the Everyman and now this?

    • Roy Stafford

      The Renoir was once one of my favourite cinemas. In fact I started going there back in the 1970s when it first opened and more recently it was very convenient to pop in before my train left Kings Cross. But I doubt I’ll be going again given the prices Curzon charge for such tiny screens. I’m relying on you to tell me Keith when the Vue Screen 14 first appeared. I know what you mean about the lights although they went fully down in the screening I attended. It’s the safety/exit lights that annoy me because they are often so bright. I find I can ignore them when I’m relatively close to the screen. The main feature of this new cinema is the shape of the screen. It doesn’t have tabs or masking (boo!) but at least a ‘Scope print fills the screen. In the other Vue screens, the shape is 1:1.85 and a ‘Scope print is letterboxed (and therefore smaller than the 1:1.85).

      Re the term ’boutique cinema’, I guess it now has some currency in the film exhibition business. I’m ambivalent about these very small cinemas but when the screen is a reasonable size, the seats are comfortable and the lights go out, I’m quite happy. I refer you to my comments on French cinemas (https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2016/06/07/thoughts-on-french-film-exhibition-practice/). I’m also happy to remember evening class screenings in the luxurious Preview Theatres on Dean Street in the 1970s.

  3. keith1942

    I think screen 14 opened in 2015. I saw ‘Sicario’ there which I regretted as it is a large screen action film and the small screen there, about 20 foot across, did not do it justice.
    I have not been back. Forfetunately at Vue you can check the screen on the ticket booking page.
    Note the other Vue screens have masking for 2.39:1 but do not use it.
    Those screens are, I am reliably informed, not 1.85:1 but 16:9!!
    And unforetuantely it seems that the LIFF screen in the Town Hall is also 16:9.
    At least the Hyde Park Picture House and The Cottage Road Cinema are still open.

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