Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

I crack jokes about Oscar bait but the truth is the Academy can sometimes be unpredictable. From the moment it was announced, Tom Ford's “Nocturnal Animals” was considered an awards contender. The director's previous feature was critically acclaimed. The film, which doubles as a gritty crime picture and a metatextual examination of the relationship between reality and fiction, is based on a respected novel. The cast was loaded with well known, beloved actors. Yet when the nominations were announced last month, “Nocturnal Animals” only cropped up in one category. You just never know what Oscar is going to go for, even when the movie is actually pretty good, like this one.

Susan Morrow is a successful art gallery owner. Many years ago, she was married to Edward, a struggling novelist who encouraged her to pursue the arts. Their relationship ended in a ugly way, with Susan leaving him for another man. Out of the blue, Edward mails Susan his new novel. Called “Nocturnal Animals,” the book is about a man whose wife and daughter are abducted, raped, and murdered by a trio of redneck criminals. As Susan reads through the story, she can't help but notice similarities to the life she had with Edward. As she reflects on how their relationship started and ended, she even considers reconnecting with her ex-husband.

As a fiction writer myself, I'll admit I frequently based characters off myself and people I've known. I think every writer does. Perhaps its normal to work through feelings and hurt through creative outlets. “Nocturnal Animals” directly concerns these motivations. Susan imagines Edward as the leader character of his novel. In a further meta choice, the film casts Amy Adams' celebrity doppelganger Isla Fisher as the fictional wife. The novel's theme of loss, guilt, and revenge seems to reflect the events of their relationship. The death of the fictional wife corresponds with the end of their love. The death of the fictional daughter mirrors Susan's aborted pregnancy. And sending the book to Susan is, in a way, an elaborate act of revenge. Through these angles, “Nocturnal Animals” gets at why people write.

If the story-within-the-story wasn't thrilling, “Nocturnal Animals” probably wouldn't work. It would be ridiculous if Susan was reacting so strongly to an ineffective piece of fiction. Luckily, the titular novel is depicted as a very tense thriller. The first scene, devoted to the family's road trip turning into a nightmare, plays out like a horror movie. (It should be noted that the movie also features a great jump scare worthy of any horror film.) A normal situation is interrupted by something terrible, the family's car run off the road by a gang of lunatics. As the situation degrades, a bit of road rage transforming into a random attack, the audience's stomach gets tied up in knots. After that horrifying opener, Edward's novel becomes a grief-stricken story of revenge pursued beyond all other causes. It's an ugly journey into a heart-broken soul. Which, of course, is exactly what the author was feeling when he wrote it.

Amy Adams has a tricky role in “Nocturnal Animals.” For most of the movie, she's siting on a couch, reacting to the book she's reading. Which doesn't sound very cinematic. Yet Adams' conveys a lot with her wide eyes and stiff body language. Her segments in the film become the entrance to “Nocturnal Animals'” complex inner-life. The flashback scenes are shot in a very different manner than the gritty crime story scenes or the chilly framing device. Instead, the flashbacks are characterized by a warm coloration. The scene where Susan and Edward first fell in love is shown through oranges and golds. As their relationship falls apart, the color palette grows colder. Her final scene with Edward are framed by sterile whites and grays. The end of their relationship is signaled by the film's visual composition.

Aside from a typically excellent Adams, the film's star studded cast contains several other strong performances. As Edward, Jake Gyllenhaal is all optimism and light conversation. As the protagonist of his own novel, Gyllenhaal is a raw nerve, a broken man held together by a nervous unease and constantly sweaty skin. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, best known for being white bread as hell in various blockbusters, has surprisingly grabbed a few awards. As the redneck murderer within the book, he's a sleazy, unnerving presence. Michael Shannon is nominated for his part as the sheriff investigating the crimes. If I'm indulging my own cynicism, I'd say Shannon got nominated primarily because his character is dying of cancer. Beyond the terminal diagnosis, Shannon brings a stoic commitment but quirky energy to the part of man who just wants to see justice done before he dies.

“Nocturnal Animals” is also a beautifully assembled motion picture. Tom Ford, befitting his background as a fashion designer, often uses splashes of bright color in wide, flat composition. The musical score is equally gorgeous, which becomes especially notable during the heart-breaking final scene. I'm not sure why the film didn't score an Adapted Screenplay nomination, at the very least, as it succeeds in the difficult task of being two very different types of movies, that both function fantastically and comment on one another, creating a richer, more complex motion picture. It's twofold narrative isn't just a flashy meta gimmick, it's a device that brilliantly comments on the motivation behind the creative process. [8/10]

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