Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson
“Oh, shall I have chamomile tea? Or shall I have some other sort of FUCKING TEA?” I think about this quote a lot. It’s a line from “The Tandem Story” which made its rounds in the late ’90s, when the Internet was in its infancy and genderized humor was still riding a Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus high. Sent primarily via email forwards with the subject line FW: FW: FW: TOO FUNNY!!!! it purported to be a real assignment wherein a male and female student take turns writing paragraphs with the goal to create a unified story. How it plays out is that the woman wants the story to be about mulling over lost love while drinking tea, and the man keeps trying to veer it into an exciting space combat adventure. You can read it here, or you can just watch Nocturnal Animals, which is kind of the same thing.
Nocturnal Animals approximates “The Tandem Story” in its format, which features disaffected rich person Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) reading a violent thriller novel sent to her by her ex, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). This translates to the screen in a hot/cold/hot/cold pattern, with intercut sequences of Susan’s bloodless life in the LA upper crust acting as a merciful splash of cold water between bouts of Edward’s gut-wrenchingly tense potboiler. Even the cinematography follows suit, with warm tones evoking the Texan sun of the novel’s setting, and icy blues conveying… well, LA is sunny too, but this is the Twilight version of LA, where everyone is sad and boring.
Susan works as an art exhibitor, living in a wealthy bubble that is literally described as being outside of the real world. For all I know the LA art scene is really as flaccidly ridiculous as depicted here, but in a post-Zoolander world it’s hard to take these Warhol caricatures seriously. One scene features Jena Malone dressed like a total idiot, showing Susan a baby monitor app that allows her to see the infant she essentially abandoned to a nanny; when Susan drops the phone and breaks it, the dead-eyed Malone shrugs, “The new one comes out next week anyway.” It’s the kind of broad stereotype that’s rarely heaved outside of Boomer columnists whining about Millennials.
So, also in keeping with “The Tandem Story,” the female part of Nocturnal Animals is a near-parody of bourgeoisie ennui fiction. Susan essentially floats from scene to scene like a ghost, navel-gazing over her withered marriage and hollow job, and reflecting on her briefly-hopeful relationship with Edward. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the movie is primarily, possibly exclusively, enjoyable because of the novel itself. A cynic might even say the entire Susan/Edward plot is essentially an overblown framing device that pads out a crackerjack 50-page thriller to a marketable run time.
But, hoo boy, Edward’s novel. Fuck! It’s so good. A family on a trip through Texas encounter some ne’er-do-wells on the highway and, well, hijinks ensue. Throughout the near-entirety of the novel’s storyline, I felt something that can only be described as, “I love this, and I can’t wait for it to be over.” It’s an uncomfortable level of tension, hinged on confrontation and machismo, the sort of thing Italian directors like Scorsese, Leone, Coppola and Tarantino seem to excel in for whatever reason. In fact, despite the LA story not being terribly interesting in its own right, it feels essential as a palette cleanser, which allows the novel’s story to maintain a high level of tension without becoming unbearable or wearying.
I do wish that there was more to connect the novel with the story of Susan and Edward, though. It’s the same problem I had with Zoom, another multi-layered story where the different layers don’t interweave enough to feel cohesive. IMDB describes Nocturnal Animals as:
An art gallery owner is haunted by her ex-husband’s novel, a violent thriller she interprets as a veiled threat and a symbolic revenge tale.
I don’t really know where they get these descriptions, but this is basically a lie. Susan never interprets the novel as a threat, but rather as a damning indictment of her decision to leave him “in a brutal way.” Her story isn’t about fearing Edward’s return, but about facing the idea that she was wrong to leave him in the first place, and about answering the question of whether there is still time to correct her mistake. There are a few lines from the novel that could just as well be hurled at Susan, such as “Nobody gets away with what you did,” but the revenge is essentially the revenge of a life well lived without a partner who may have missed the boat.
The only real through-line is in the characters: the novel’s protagonist Tony (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is defined by his weakness, the same fault that Edward perceives as the reason Susan left him. Tony’s wife—in what amounts to a brilliant casting gag—is played by Isla Fischer, who everyone used to confuse with Amy Adams in their early careers.
Speaking of the cast, I loved basically everyone in this. Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson nail the equally cynical lawman and criminal respectively, and they both play well off of Gyllenhaal’s personification of impotent, cowardly vengeance. Gyllenhaal and Adams both pull double duty: Gyllenhaal plays both the writer and character of the book, and Adams essentially plays Ebenezer Scrooge, a character lively and full of hope in flashbacks and rotted from the pursuit of materialism in the present. They both ace the trick of playing two distinct personas who share the same soul, and while it’s not news to anybody that both Adams and Gyllenhaal are terrific actors, it’s still worth stating how much they add to an already-solid screenplay.
My major problem with the screenplay is that it drops basically an entire weight class in its closing moments; I left the theater substantially less excited about the film than I was even five minutes before it wrapped up. Beyond that, the interpretation I took of it makes it seem very shallow. Adams’ character is essentially a brilliant, successful woman who’s nonetheless purely defined by the man she latches onto. The cliché vapidity of her high-art life and the extremely one-sided view of her breakup with Saint Edward boil everything down to the uncomfortable message that maybe women shouldn’t dare dream bigger than what the fragile creative in their life can offer. If only she’d shut up for 20 entire years and lived on a futon and massaged Edward’s ego enough, she could be there with him when he wrote a book, instead of sitting on the board of directors for a modern art museum.
The vilification of Susan is balanced somewhat by mea culpa of Edward’s story, in which he casts himself as a man who lacks the strength and resolve to avert disaster. So, in a way it’s a story about two people who each blame themselves for their breakup, but Susan’s castigation is so much more central to the plot that it’s hard to get past the interpretation that the film holds her in contempt. It could essentially be the story Edward himself might have written shortly after their divorce, a kind of “Just you wait, Henry Higgins!” launched bitterly at his ex.
Hell, maybe Tom Ford wrote it for the Susan in his life. If so, he’s probably still dealing with those issues, because he didn’t seem entirely clear on how to resolve his story. Which is fine by me. If there’s more to come I want to be there to see it.