Lee gets indulgent (as always) in his glowing review for Nocturnal Animals.
From a surface perspective, there’s a chance viewers are going to read Nocturnal Animals like a cheap, dirty break-up song. Hollow yet pointed anger on the trespasses from one lover to another, gussied up in neo-noir attire, revenge-horror make-up and sparkly meta-narrative heels. And, to an extent, they’re not wrong, but like all dress-ups it’s the details that really make the effort absolutely worthwhile.
Exploring three separate narratives, one present, one past and one fictional, we explore the embers of a dead relationship mostly on a subtextual level. While there are multiple events and stories competing for screen-time, each separated entirely through palette, location and dialogue, the most important relationship in the movie, that of Susan’s rekindling passion for her estranged ex, exists in an almost unspoken space. Hints, sighs, turns and sequentially-laced conversations tip us off to what she must be feeling in that moment, but it’s rarely addressed, all conveyed through masterful performance and pacing.
Tying the entire piece together is a continuous sense of unease and tension, as we juxtapose pauses in reading with family kidnappings and alleged raping; it’s dark stuff, ideally, and has the potential to waver interest in its blunt, course nature. Its approach to masculinity, to the strength/weakness parallel, to the psychological effects of abortion on the male psyche and its cynical affair with love; petulance is rife, and it reflects as much on the fictional writer as it does the filmmaker as it does the adapted novel writer. No one comes out from the fray flattered, no one enamoured in their approach to bad choices.
Yet there’s something absolutely brilliant in these choices. It’s not catch-all so much as it is just good character writing, backed up by good meta-writing. If Edward reaches some state of catharsis with his hate-prose, and Tony reaches his required destination, and Susan gets her lessons delivered with remarkable cruelty, what does this say of the writer? Or men? Of justice? If the softness in Edward is gone, is he not now Susan’s current husband, Hutton? That’s hardly flattering, and so men must be on trial as much as hypocritical woman. People are pigs and the world keeps spinning.
If anything, this draws fiction as a form of delivering messages right into the firing line. Maybe the form is corrupt; if the fictional writer uses his writing to harm, aren’t the real writers doing similar to us? Either way, if we’re going high-brow, best go with ambiguity and let us make our own debates, and that’s something Nocturnal Animals flaunts.
Needless to say, this isn’t exactly leisurely viewing. There’s certainly joy to be had; Michael Shannon’s Bobby is the coolest interpretation of psychotherapy you’re likely to see all year, but that’s about it unless you’re a big fan of comeuppance. Performances are full to the brim with subtle ticks and jubilant coldness; plus the dialogue lacks that sagging cynicism that wears down smart-ass cinema so often. Even the flaws are commendable: whinny, contrived family sequences and over-the-top rapist monologues work in meta-fiction; Edward really isn’t much of a writer, after all.
It’s not faultless, but that’s part of the intrigue. Nocturnal Animals is a work of art made for cinema, and Tom Ford has done an immensely admirable job giving us something to chew on for years to come. Plus, it ends at exactly the right second, and we mustn’t undervalue staying exactly your welcome.