By Bradley Griffith
If you decide to see “Nocturnal Animals” at the theater heed my advice and go five minutes late. Not that the ending was much better. The most surprising thing about the film is that despite the awful beginning and the ending that is not an ending at all, the middle part of the story is actually very good.
The plot of “Nocturnal Animals” is a story inside a story. Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) owns a Los Angeles art gallery that appears to be very successful. She’s stuck in a loveless marriage to a man who runs a failing and virtually bankrupt business. From the outside, she appears to be a happy and successful woman. On the inside, she is very unhappy with how her life has turned out.
One weekend while her husband is in New York on business she receives a package from Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), her ex-husband of twenty years. Edward was an aspiring novelist when they were together, but he was never able to write the great American novel. In the package is a manuscript written by Edward that has already been bought by a publisher. Edward wanted Susan to have an early copy. He dedicated the novel to Susan and titled it “Nocturnal Animals.”
Intrigued and with nothing else to do for the weekend Susan begins to read the manuscript. This is where the second story begins. For while Susan is reading the book, the viewer is watching the story unfold in Susan’s mind.
The book is about a family driving through the night in deserted West Texas. The father, Tony Hastings (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal), is peacefully driving the family in the middle of nowhere until an old, beat-up car with three men inside runs them off the road. After a tense confrontation on the side of the road the leader of the men, Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), takes the wife and daughter. As Susan reads the manuscript she remembers her time with Edward, how happy they were at first, and how she did a terrible thing to him just before their divorce.
The opening sequence of the movie is the worst scene in the history of cinema. It’s so awful that I refuse to write about it. It’s meant to be provocative and edgy, but it’s just plain horrendous. I will say that the opening sequence, and the entire movie for that matter, is not for children of any age. The scene lasts about five minutes and you won’t miss anything.
The ending of the movie is only marginally better. The problem with the ending is that there is no ending to the story. The movie just stops. It stops before the resolution of one of the storylines. The only possible explanation is that the filmmaker wants you to reach your own conclusions. He wants you to decipher the meaning of the ending and the entire story. It’s a conversation starter.
The remainder of the movie is excellent. The passages from the manuscript are expertly woven with Susan’s present and her past with Edward. The novel has the ring of non-fiction to it when read by Susan. You can almost read her thoughts as she begins to understand the meaning of the story in the manuscript. The storytelling aspect of the movie is fantastic.
As far as the acting is concerned, everyone brought their A-game. With very little dialogue and even less action Amy Adams conveyed a multitude of emotions from despair to confusion to outright anger. Michael Shannon excelled as the Texas lawman trying to capture the three men who took Tony Hastings’ wife and daughter. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was nothing short of astonishing in his portrayal of the vile Ray Marcus.
“Nocturnal Animals” is a difficult movie to grade. It’s definitely not a movie for everyone. The beginning deserves an F and the ending gets a D+. But the majority of the movie is so well made and packed with so much tension and drama that it elevates the entire film.
Rated R for violence, menace, graphic nudity, and language.