In the trailer for Nocturnal Animals, Amy Adams's character (Susan Morrow) says, "my ex-husband use to call me a nocturnal animal . . . recently he sent me this book that he has written. It's violent and it's sad and he dedicated it to me . . . ." That line holds some creepy possibilities, but what plays out on screen is unexpected, with themes of loss, regret and revenge. Directed by Tom Ford and based on the book Tony and Susan, it's a stylized, uncomfortable, tense and foreboding neo noir.
A manuscript arrives for Susan just as she is at a low point in her life -- she is in a loveless marriage, burned out on her career as curator and gallery owner and tired of her superficial relationships. The novel is written by her ex-husband who she hasn't seen or spoken to in 20 years. As she begins to read the novel, the movie alternates between present day, 20 years ago, and the story from the novel. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the role of both the ex-husband (Edward) and the fictional character, Tony Hastings.
Tony, along with his wife and teenage daughter, is on a road trip that gets derailed after an incident with a group of men in another car. The men run Tony off the road along a dark and desolate stretch of Texas highway. Despite his wife's pleas to just drive away, Tony gets out to speak to the other driver, Ray. What should be a simple exchange, quickly escalates into a disturbing interaction, punctuated by small eruptions of violence. It seems Tony is the only one who does not see that things are about to take a dark turn, and continues to hang on to the idea the men are more bark than bite. Adding further frustration to an already frustrating and unbearably tense scene, Tony allows himself to be separated from his wife and daughter. He is driven to a remote area and left there. At daylight, he finds his way to a road, and help in the form of detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). The events of that night will greatly alter Tony's life and how he navigates the world. Back in present day, Susan is gripped by the novel, but also shaken. The comparisons between Tony and Laura, and Susan and Edward are obvious. Isla Fisher, in the role of Laura Hastings, bears a striking physical resemblance to Susan. She is outspoken and acts on her emotions, while Tony is a passive idealist. Revealed through flashbacks of Susan and Edward's marriage, this same idealism drew Susan to Edward, but would later push her away. Night after night Susan stays up reading the novel, causing her to relive the past, unraveling years of guilt and regret about how she ended the marriage.
Although unpleasant to watch, the discomfort is intentional, and the intensity of it had me captivated until the end. Despite unlikable characters with sometimes awkward and scripted sounding interactions, the actors manage to have stand out moments. Amy Adams is at her best when she is not speaking at all, instead saying everything with her facial expressions and 1000 yard stares. I was most impressed with Aaron Taylor-Johnson's performance as Ray. While there is little change to his physical appearance, Aaron is practically unrecognizable, even to a fan such as myself. It’s difficult to recommend this movie, but I have to give it credit for the strength with which it invaded my thoughts – the eerie and foreboding mood stuck with me for days after.