No, you’re reading right. It’s me, reviewing a current movie. Yep, I generally avoid ’em – ten to twenty minutes in, wondering why I’m not watching Vertigo, The Searchers, a pre-Code or anything with Charles McGraw. But I’m making a rare exception because this entry, 2016’s NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, now on Blu-ray from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, is a rare exception. Not saying it’s a sure-to-be future classic, but it’s definitely interesting enough to hold the attention of anyone past grade school. And these days, for an American movie, that’s a big deal.
No surprise, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS owes much of its existence to film noir. Indeed, director/scripter Tom Ford greatly admires those oft-trodden mean streets and their occasional detours (to say nothing of Detour itself). His recent appearance on TCM as a guest programmer (okay, to admittedly help promote the hom-vid of this title) revealed his love for Psycho, a movie that, like this one, partially preys on the fear of desert driving.
But what is the primo-mojo of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, besides its illustrious roots? It’s the story, actually a story within a story within a story. That’s right, folks, ya get three fer one. Howz that for bang for your buck? But while a snarky, suspicious viewer (no names mentioned) might initially conclude that the pic is simple three Lifetime Movies in one, ANIMALS goes way beyond that because of…well, because of a number of reasons. The main one is the stellar acting; all the performances are excellent, with two a standout: Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon. And, no, we’re not demeaning the fine work of Amy Adams. She is, after all the catalyst, the main mane, the twist who’s the twist…in the twist.
Let me further wet your whistle with a brief rundown on the narrative. Story One: Beauteous Susan Morrow (Adams) is a successful art gallery owner (with a bizarre penchant for violent, grotesque exhibits) married to successful, hunky businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer). The only thing that isn’t successful is their marriage – a rapidly eroding train wreck of lovelessness. Oh, yeah, and it turns out, their supposed upscale life ain’t so successful either – living from day-to-day, faking their wealth until the repo folks come a-knockin’. In fact, the underlying theme of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is…well, lying. No one is truthful, no one is sincere, no one is to be believed or trusted. As her “friend” at a phony soiree mentions about her beard marriage to a closeted spouse, “Having a gay husband is not such a bad thing.”
Susan’s self-loathing emanates from her shame in not doing the right thing, aka, marrying the true love of her college youth, Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal). This brings us to story number deux. Then an aspiring artist, Susan meets budding writer Edward, and it’s the Fourth of July on Christmas and Christmas in July. But Sheffield is a struggling schnook, and Morrow’s shrewish mom (Laura Linney, in a great cameo), by Susan’s own definition, a horrible right-wing nut-job “conservative Republican,” sneers at her daughter’s romantic choices. “We all eventually turn into our mothers,” she spits out at her progeny, a witch’s curse that turns out to be true, as Susan ditches Edward for Hutton, but not before aborting their child. And Edward Sheffield disappears into the fog, seething with hate and a sworn decree of RE-VEN-GE (there’s a reason I’m writing it that way; you’ll have to watch to find out why).
Which brings us to story number three. Susan receives a manuscript in the mail from Edward, a name she hasn’t openly mentioned in years. Susan even tells her employees that she’s been freaked by an out of the past blast from her first husband – a declaration that stuns her staff, as they never realized there WAS a first husband.
The manuscript is for a thriller, entitled NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, a favorite name the once-inseparable couple was fond of (again, this should tell you something). It’s a modern horror tale that Susan can’t put down, and it’s played out by Gyllenhaal in a dual role, Adams lookalike Isla Fisher and younger Fisher/Adams doppelganger Ellie Bamber (as the couple’s grown teenaged daughter), portraying the author’s fictional characters. Tony Hastings, wife Laura and daughter India (as Sheffield has dubbed them) are driving through the desert one night when they get sidetracked by a carload of redneck assholes. This turns into a bullying episode of terror and nightmarish road stalking that would give even Stephen King the motoring-after-sundown heebee-jeebees. Not to sound like Rex Beach, but here come the spoilers, so if you wanna sign off, do it now. The creeps (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo) kidnap the females, rape and murder them, after further torturing and tormenting and abandoning the emasculated surviving Hastings.
He reports the incident to the local police, who half-scoff at his incredible chronicle. Eventually, the bodies are found, and one special veteran investigator, Bobby Andres, is assigned to the case (an absolutely Oscar-worthy turn by Shannon).
Together, over a period of years, the two men track down the culprits and eventually deliver their own kind of justice…with monstrous consequences.
Reading the engrossing text so unnerves Susan that she phones her college-aged daughter (Inez Menuez) from her first marriage (the one likened in the kidnap narrative) to make sure she’s safe. But, wait, didn’t Susan reveal that her child from that union was aborted? To quote the Marvin Gaye ditty, “What’s going on?”
Never mind that for now. Susan can’t get Nocturnal Animals out of her thoughts. She contacts Edward and agrees to meet with him over dinner. Maybe this disturbing book will finally result in the happiness she’s missed, yeah?
Susan Morrow contentedly sits in a restaurant waiting for her dream lover/novelist, the man she should have been with from the beginning. And waits. And waits.
And here is where NOCTURNAL ANIMALS becomes a must-see, even for us vintage-only movie buffs. What it achieves is something not present in modern picture-making, for seemingly decades. Discussing the characters’ fates after the scenario ends (this is recommended over coffee and cake or other stimulants of choice at your local pub/opium den). Is first hubby finally getting his revenge by standing her up? Or does he even exist? Remember that weird shit about her calling the daughter, or, that no one ever heard her discuss a first marriage? That’s what I’m talking about!
This is the kind of movie that I surmise the likes of John Boorman, Claude Chabrol or Robert Aldrich would have gone ga-ga over. But I give an approving nod to Ford, who, between his other day job as fashion designer, wrote, directed, and even roughcut-edited the pic at his studio. Ford adapted the script from Tony and Susan, a novel by Austin Wright. Of course, his first change was to call the movie by the fictional book’s moniker. Let’s face it, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is wayyy more enticing than Tony and Susan. It implies vampirism, and, in a film noir way, it is.
Aside from all of the above, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS has a lot of other cool stuff going for it, specifically the lush, gorgeous, dark camerawork by Seamus McGarvey (with terrific Malibu and Mojave Desert locations), and a wonderful score by Abel Korzeniowski, that frequently resonates with a jazzy John Barry vibe.
The Universal Pictures Blu-Ray of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is mah-velous, with its spectacular 1080p scope visuals and 5.1 DTS-HD audio bringing the movie theater experience into one’s media room. There are also some obligatory extras, but I’d rather envelope myself in the jigsaw plotline and masterful acting.
Oh, yeah, and personally, no matter what the outcome is for Ms. Morrow, it ain’t gonna end well. Now, pass the Entemann’s, please.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. Color. Widescreen [2.40:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. CAT# 62184428. SRP: $34.98 (includes DVD and Digital HD).