Nocturnal Animals

Susan Murrow’s (Amy Adams) life is like a work of art that has been created by a tortured artist. On the surface there is a beauty in her work, marriage and home that merely masks her tormented soul. As an art curator in Los Angeles, she lives an enviable life, but it is crumbling away underneath her. While her husband and business partner, Hutton (Armie Hammer), is away on a business trip, she gets a book manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). As Susan begins to read through the story titled Nocturnal Animals, she is confronted by the dark and violent tale of a family who is brutalised on their journey across West Texas. Even though the story of the fictitious life of the Hastings is disturbing, her emotional response to Edward’s book comes from their past life. She sees his inspiration comes from their difficult relationship that she abruptly left behind 20 years earlier. As she confronts the realities of her life, Susan must work through the demons of her past while she experiences the disturbing truths of Edwards work of fiction.

Nocturnal Animals manages to sit in between the gratuitously confronting and dramatically beautiful, which makes it almost impossible to turn away from the screen. The fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford (A Single Man) has an artistic flare for the visual that draws the audience into this fictitious world, but does not provide any comfort or solace within the experience.

The performances by Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon (Midnight Special) are exceptional, which prove why they are some of modern cinemas most celebrated actors. Their ability to exist and work within both worlds that are being portrayed in these alternative realities is mesmerising, even though the actual characters lack little objective appeal. Tom Ford’s interpretation of Austin Wright’s novel is handled with the craftsmanship of a seasoned artist, even though this is only his second film. The interweaving of the beauty and the tragic elements forces the viewer to stay engaged, even when the scenes cross the line of enjoyable entertainment and move into the realm of the truly disconcerting. That Ford has an exceptional eye for the dramatic and artistry cannot be denied, but it will leave some movie goers stunned with disbelief.

This is where the audience must make a choice of how far they are willing to go to be entertained. Due to this sordid tale being set within the art world, the use of nudity and violence have been taken to an extreme that assault the senses from the opening credits. The grotesque nature of both of these elements and their confronting nature are similar to the experience of walking into a contemporary art museum. People will need to determine whether they want to view the art or avoid it all together. With Ford’s artistic styling and Edward Sheffield’s dark allegorical work of fiction there is no middle ground for the audience to sit and merely observe. Every aspect of the darker side of the human condition is exposed and no amount of window dressing can make murder, rape, infidelity or revenge appealing.

Nocturnal Animals makes it impossible to avoid these artistic elements for the sake of telling this story. The character development, the back stories and the performances are engrossing, but the application will be difficult for the average viewer to stomach. This is a brilliant work of art that will only appeal to a select few.

Reel Dialogue: What are the bigger questions to consider from this film?

“What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Luke 18:27

Is there such thing as an unforgivable sin? Nocturnal Animals confronts this idea by looking at the relationships between husbands and wives. Tom Ford weaves a story that centres on that very question, how far is too far when it comes to being able to forgive the ones you love. Interestingly, this is at the heart of the message of the Bible, too. Not just the question of forgiveness within marriage, but more importantly between God and mankind. Regardless of what we have done against God or others, the God of the Bible is willing to forgive those who are willing to seek his forgiveness.

  1. How can God forgive sins? (Isaiah 59:1-2, Ephesians 1:7, 2 Timothy 2:13, 1 John 1:9)
  2. Why should I believe that God will forgive me? (Psalm 23:4, Matthew 24: 11-13, Luke 15:1-10)

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Russell Matthews

Russell loves film and enjoys engaging in discussions about the latest cinema offerings and then connecting this with the Gospel. He has worked for City Bible Forum for over 10 years, is a reviewer for Insights Magazine and Entertainment Fuse and has a blog called Russelling Reviews. He moderates events for Reel Dialogue which connect the film industry with the general public.