- Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Broken dreams and art that triggers revenge – a non-linear plot embellished with visual symbolism and delivered by the star-studded cast, Nocturnal Animals questions giving up your dreams for stability as it takes the main heroine on a guilt trip hidden between the pages of a book.
Susan is an art dealer who’s lost all the illusions of making it in arts as a creator. She sells artworks she doesn’t believe in, and struggles to keep her relationship together – when one day, an unexpected package from her ex-husband, her college sweetheart Edward arrives. In his letter, he offers her the very first read of his unpublished novel called “Nocturnal Animals”, with the name derived from what he used to call her when they still were together. Susan starts reading the story – and the revenge from the man she has abandoned cruelly, as she admits, starts slowly unfolding.
The film gives you a slap in the face from the opening scene: an art display organised by Susan, all in slow motion, defying everything you could think about beauty and opening up the discussion about “junk” versus “art” that is carefully woven into the plot. It also puts a huge question mark at the end of a selection of questions: how much are our dreams really worth, will we be happy if we pursue something that’s not strongly connected to what we truly love, and can anything be a substitute for passion? The protagonist tries to find the answer, buried in doubts and flashbacks, that take her even to and a memorable meeting of Susan’s younger self with her mother who she always opposed.
What bugs her so much about the story, then? The line between her memories and fiction is blurred; the flashbacks and the plot of the novel are tied tightly by the characters played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Isla Fisher. And throughout the film, we wonder whether that emotional revenge is spiralled by Susan’s regrets, or actually is connected to something that has happened before. The interpretation is left to us: we’re guided through the story of two major plots and a sequence of memories, and it’s up to us how we interpret the filmmaker’s intentions.
The reality and fiction transition smoothly thanks to the fantastic cast. Amy Adams as a cynical art bohemia girl Susan, who didn’t find anything she wanted from life in her current hip lifestyle, and her on-screen twin in the fictional narrative Isla Fisher as Laura, who goes on a trip with her husband and daughter through the abandoned places in West Texas, manage to create a persona that pushes the audience into thinking that the connection between the main character and the book is based on something more than just metaphors and coincidental resemblance. Jake Gyllenhaal passes the double-role test, too – he’s a sensitive, artsy romantic in one second as Edward, and switches to Tony, a man that has lost his family and looks to prove his strength, led by grief and a desperate need for revenge. Michael Shannon as a man of the law, with his looks of a stereotypical sheriff and the sense of justice taken out of the western genre, is also a welcome addition into the story.
Packed with symbols and visually expressive, the film is a delight to the eye that gets an additional layer of meaning by exploring how things are staged and framed. From the aforementioned opening sequence, through the items that appear on the big screen (one of the paintings in Susan’s gallery, for example), the cinematography supports the story with vivid symbolism that unites the reality and fiction. The Neon Demon, a recent film by Nicholas Winding Refn springs to mind when it comes to comparisons – with its slow escalation of cruelty and on-screen symbolism that dives underneath the straight lines of storytelling, it belongs to the same thriller genre that uses visuals to create an impact beyond the story and acting quality – it’s not just about jump scares and growing tension.
Nocturnal Animals merges intertwined plots in a story about the legacy of an artist’s revenge and the power of art to influence, primarily those who know their background well. Cherry-picked cast tricks people into thinking about the connections between two worlds – and we slip into discovering what the story really means to the heroine. It’s also a cautionary tale of how idealistic dreams of youth crash and change, and what bitterness those broken mirages can bring into your mature adulthood.