Genre: Psychological Thriller, Drama, Neo-Noir
As someone who has studied screenwriting as part of my degree I know very well that all fiction, especially when amateurish, reflects the personal life and perspective of its writer. And so, a smile came to my face while watching Nocturnal Animals, where Susan (Amy Adams) says to Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) in a flashback scene, ‘maybe you should write about something other than yourself.’ He replies, distressed, that you can’t say that to a writer – that’s all they can do.
10 years later and they are divorced and he has written a novel (called Nocturnal Animals) and dedicated it to her. Susan is now married again but doesn’t know if she loves her husband. She seems to be wealthy enough from her job as an art gallery owner, but she is lonely and depressed. With her husband away on a business trip, she finds the time over a few days to read Edward’s novel and reflect. The film follows an unconventional approach to structure in following 3 timelines at once: the life of Susan as the reads the novel (and which often acts as an intermediary between the others); the story of the novel itself; and flashbacks to her and Edward’s relationship whilst they are still together.
The approach is most interesting in that we are shown far more of the events of the novel than any of the real events. As quickly as we learn that it is not real, we realise that it represents how Edward feels and has felt since the divorce. And seeing it this way is much more powerful. His novel is a dark and shocking thriller rife with violence and despair. It’s about murder, rape and Tony’s (Edward’s character in the novel) quest for revenge. As Susan reads it, we see her reactions, bringing suppressed memories and emotions to the surface. Guilt. Regret. Shame.
But besides a few moments in Tony’s story arc in which it is crystal clear which point we are at in Edward’s, what the rest of it means is completely indecipherable. You’ll probably find yourself asking, what does it all mean? And if it doesn’t mean anything, then why the hell are we being shown it?
Nocturnal Animals is long, slow, and ultimately pointless. However it it is redeemable in that it ably explores some dense themes – guilt and regret, family and ancestry – ‘all women turn into their mothers’ – and morality (Tony is teased for his inability to ‘pull the trigger’). And it contains some really, really tense scenes. The opening scene of Edward’s book, for example, is an epic nightmare of a sequence; Aaron-Taylor Johnson and his criminal gang run Tony, his wife and daughter off the road at night and it only escalates from there. Aaron-Taylor Johnson is fantastic, as is Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s a pretty good watch.