Wasn’t this the plot of Down With Love? No, wait… that was a parody.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) has it all: perfect career, perfect husband, perfect life… but not really. Disenchanted with her art gallery and her philandering spouse (Armie Hammer), a reminder of her old life arrives in the mail: a pre-release proof of a novel written by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Not having heard from him for almost two decades even after trying to reach him, Susan reads the tragic thriller, envisioning the protagonist Tony as Edward himself (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal); the plot metaphorically mirrors her past relationship, with Susan envisioning scenes from the book while alternating them with her own memories. As Tony’s story in the novel draws to a close, Susan considers the next phase in her life.
The trailers are pretty much useless; with Jake Gyllenhaal playing a dual role, it isn’t clear at a glance that he’s not the main character, that he’s playing two different people, or in different times in his lives. This will confuse audiences expecting a straight-forward thriller because it’s anything but. Since the story is both more and less complex than advertised, talking about it while avoiding spoilers is going to be quite the tap dance — the closest description that works is a mundane life is reconsidered due to experiencing a story written by someone whose already made a change… presumably. Another way to look at it is that awards season is here again and Gyllenhaal lost a bet to someone forcing him to make one of these things every year for a winter release, but is it worth the watch?
Giving director Tom Ford his due props, it is a clever vehicle: filming a family-man revenge fantasy being read by the real-life main character in a midlife crisis. This also allows the inner story to be as melodramatic as the director likes because it isn’t the actual story… and this is also where the film begins to break down. Earmarks of awards-bait are everywhere in this production: bizarre disingenuous opening, non-linear storytelling — especially having the story-in-a-story featuring one actor twice drawing intentional parallels — and the mandatory ambiguous ending that leaves it up to the audience to decide what really happened… because not really ending a movie is brilliant, damn it!
Since the plot intentionally permits Susan to draw parallels between her ex-husband’s novel — dedicated to her, no less — and her own relationship with him, the film suggests two possibilities. Either the novel was sent to her intentionally provoke an emotional reaction — an advanced peek of his fictional evisceration of her in that most Geoffrey Chaucer of ways — or it was only for him and he doesn’t care one way or another, taking some blame for failing to act to save their marriage himself. Not knowing whether or not the novel will actually be successful greatly undermines the first idea — ha ha, your book tanked and no one will ever read it! — as does the fact it took him almost twenty years to finish what we assume is his first and only book, not to mention all that time wasted getting over his ex-wife. If the latter, then the book is perhaps a misunderstood apology, but the wait-that’s-it ending doesn’t support that theory unless the novelist committed suicide off-screen… of which there is zero evidence.
Kudos must go to Michael Shannon’s inner story chain-smoking west Texas detective and another metamorphic role for Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“You didn’t see that coming?”) as the inner story bad guy. Truthfully, the entire cast was good — it’s the story that’s highly questionable. An actual ending might have fixed these problem: he’s been watching you for years; he was waiting to see if you called or wrote before throwing himself off a bridge; he’s in a café in Paris laughing about spending the multi-million dollar film option he earned before his book was even published… anything! Instead, we got what we got… and it feels entirely ambiguous (read: pointless) instead of smart. “But it makes you think,” some will argue — true: it makes you think, “The director had no clue how to end this… so they didn’t.”
Nocturnal Animals is rated R for lots a female nudity but no man bits. Hey, maybe this is a story within a story within a movie: Tom Ford’s revenge! Interestingly, it’s oddly reminiscent of the movie Down With Love, except that movie was about a 1960s woman getting revenge by *winning* the womanizer who spurned her by presuming to write a hit book — all of which was shown to be ridiculous for the parody it is.
2 Skull Recommendation Out of Four