“Nocturnal Animals”

 

            Writer and Director Tom Ford gives us the strangest opening sequence ever:  obese ladies dancing naked in an art gallery opening, while formally-dressed patrons try to pretend it's avant-garde?

            Well, if Mr. Ford wanted to set a mood that would leave the viewer somewhat shocked and on edge, then he succeeded.  The art gallery is the place of employment for the main character, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who seems to have it all:  an important executive job with the gallery, a handsome husband, a fabulous house.  But there's definitely unhappiness simmering under the surface.  Her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) is the one she left her first husband for----Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who's the sweet and sensitive type, an aspiring writer.  But Susan was too restless and ambitious to be content with his commercial failures.  Her Mother (Laura Linney) had warned her that this would happen, but Susan just did not want to believe at the time that she would turn out exactly like her:  materialistic, arrogant, selfish, and emotionally distant, except with those she wants to impress.  And now that she's living in “the big house,” and her husband is out traveling (again), she finds herself thinking about Edward (it's the Eagles who sang about “every point of refuge has its price”).  And now Edward has sent her a manuscript, which is dedicated to her.  Susan begins reading with great interest.  But it's not a sweet bedtime story.  It's a chilling, horrific tale of a couple on vacation with their teenaged daughter, which goes horribly wrong when they encounter three ex-cons on a lonely road at night.

            Now the movie takes a left turn and spends most of the rest of its emotional energy telling the gruesome tale of Edward's novel.  Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) are traveling by car on a vacation, with their teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) in the back seat, complaining about being so out in the boonies that she isn't even getting a signal for her cell phone.  And that's the exact place the thugs show up:  first blockading the road and not letting them pass, then running the Hastings' car off the road.  After a pretense of trying to fix their flat tire, the creepy hoodlums kidnap the Mom and daughter, and leave the Dad abandoned down a deserted dirt road.  Tony survives the ordeal, and finally gets help, but despite a lot of fingerprinting, there's just not enough hard evidence.  And Tony, being completely distraught, makes for an unreliable witness.

            Now it's a revenge tale.  The local gendarme, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), is as disappointed in the DA's decision not to prosecute as Tony is.  Bobby smokes like a chimney, and doesn't appear to be in great health.  In fact, he's got lung cancer, and has less than a year to live.  He's already been summarily demoted at work, and he has no family, so now he's got nothing at all to lose.  He wants these bad hombres brought to justice, and he wants to know if Tony is “all in” on this.  Well, wouldn't you be?

            So now back to our original scenario:  what does this have to do with our art gallery afficianado?  Is there something here about grisly murder and cold revenge and casual indifference that we don't know about?  Just maybe.  Now, if we can only make sense of the obese naked dancing ladies....

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Laura Linney's character tells her daughter that eventually, all daughters wind up becoming their Moms.  Do you think that's true?

2)                  The thug's leader, Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) manages to be menacing by his loopy reasoning, rather than just by snarling.  Can someone be very dangerous without looking like it?

3)                  Have you known people whose lives were permanently altered by one momentous event?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association