Film awards season is anticipated equally for good and bad reasons, as it’s when filmgoers (critics and audiences alike) praise or complain about the nominations and winners. These awards ceremonies can often be predictable in their choices, perhaps because of the immeasurable amount of media outlets deciding which films will be hot contenders (even before they’ve been released).
One such contender this year is “Nocturnal Animals”, fashion designer/film director Tom Ford’s second feature film, seven years after his debut “A Single Man” was released to acclaim and received a number of nominations (mainly for Colin Firth’s lead role).
It features a brilliant cast, lead by Amy Adams as Susan, whose upper-class life is disrupted when she receives a manuscript for an upcoming novel from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Through the film, we see another narrative showing the ghastly events that take place in the novel against its main character Tony (also Jake Gyllenhaal) and his family; a third narrative later emerges as flashbacks from Susan as she recollects the time when she and Edward were together.
Hopefully, “Nocturnal Animals” will receive awards recognition for its variety of actors, along with the directing, editing, cinematography, and the screenplay adapted from its source novel “Tony and Susan”. Yet there’s the nagging feeling that this taut and cleverly made drama-thriller will be overshadowed by the more obvious and plainly made Oscar-bait films that we all know and dread.
There’s still the chance “Nocturnal Animals” could be this year’s “Gone Girl”, a consummate production in all aspects losing traction with its number of nominations as it leads up to the Academy Awards. Here’s why this fantastic film deserves recognition now, if not by the Academy, then by filmgoers and audiences keen for an awards contender that goes against many of the conventions you might expect.
7. Excellent dynamic performances between actors
There are not many Best Ensemble Cast awards available, but if there were, they would be taking into consideration how a group of actors perform with each other in a collective effort. Even though certain actors are performing within different layers of reality in “Nocturnal Animals”, they still contrast and relate with each other in ways that show how in tune they all are.
In the real world of the film, Amy Adams reveals her character Susan’s emotional state through subtleties alone, as her pristine and externally rigid lifestyle has conditionalized her in an environment that suppresses emotions, with her authentic (and very depressed) state hidden behind a number of façades. We mostly see these in the scenes of her simply reading and reacting to the book, with close-ups showing her contained emotions seemingly bursting through her visage.
In contrast to the contained performance from Adams, in the book’s world, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Tony is far more expressive with his own actions, appropriately as he is put in a far more intensified situation. He has a much more emotionally demanding and physically treacherous experience than Susan, with Gyllenhaal bringing far less subtlety and a larger outward range of emotions.
Also in the book world is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ray, who embodies villainy in all its smugness and amorality, and Michael Shannon as Detective Bobby, who also has an interesting take on morality.
These heightened performances are used to intensify the novel, which in turn intensifies the reactions of Susan as she is reading this story we are seeing. The acting works across the film’s real world and fiction world without feeling too disparate, but makes enough of an interesting contrast to differentiate the two, and that’s mostly achieved through the wonderful ensemble cast and their varied performances.
6. Stunning cinematography
To match the successful range of performances is the successful range of imagery. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography switches between scenes of city-time darkness and outback daylight with ease. The editing should also be championed for making the transitions between the two appear so smooth, though there’s a richness to the cinematography that elevates the film’s realism.
In the novel’s scenes, there’s none of the washed-out, grey-brown look that other films tend to go for (especially if they’re shooting in an area without much color, like the outback), with instead a stark almost doco-drama visual style that elevates the intense impact in the desolate Texan landscape rather than devaluing it through grading down the colors.
Susan’s scenes back in Los Angeles have more of a dark and sharp appearance that feel very deliberately manufactured, with the sparse colours (of mostly red) amongst the futuristic interior designs of her house and her office add to how suffocatingly hollow these environments make her feel – this kind of imagery isn’t boastful, but to visually indicate Susan’s restrictive confines.
Likewise with the range of acting, these cinematography styles across these two narratives work together and indicate the various subtle shifts in tone between these two worlds.
This cinematography is enormously impressive, yet it’s not the kind of visual style that always demands attention. It is instead often attuned to the actors; during the roadside scenes, the visual style is more restrained to let the actors take control of the scenes; during Susan’s scenes at her art gallery, the shots are more constructed to match the visual aesthetics of the gallery and the art that’s displayed within it; and during Susan’s scenes at home when she’s reading the novel, the cinematography is dedicated toward capturing the details on her face in a lot of tight close-ups.
It sounds like he’s working across a number of varied landscapes, but McGarvey was able to film them all with consistency. His work has improved the likes of mediocre films such as “Godzilla” (2015) and this year’s “The Accountant”, but with “Nocturnal Animals”, he assists with the film’s greatness, rather than solely amplifying it.
5. Balance of clarity and ambiguity
The audience with whom you see this film may sigh or groan with disappointment at the end, like they did at the end of Oscar winner “No Country for Old Men”.
“Nocturnal Animals” has in some way a similar mood to the Coen brothers’ film in that although it seems to come to its logical conclusion, there still feels like there are loose ends that just can’t be tied up. The novel comes to a finish and it appears to make sense and give closure, but the reality outside of it is much more dissonant and vague, as if the relations between characters can never really come to any conclusion.
The film seems to suggest that although fiction often has identifiable points of equilibrium and re-equilibrium, life itself does not conform to these sorts of rules, as we see from the lack of closure for Susan’s character, who must live now in the wake of this novel that serves as a permanent reminder for her actions during her break-up with Edward. It’s of great skill for a director to exclude as well as include, but as Alejandro Inarritu’s consecutive double win has proven, the Academy is mostly interested in films directed in a big way.
However, Ford has really shown through “Nocturnal Animals” that he knows how much of a story he has to divulge. When the film comes to its finish, there is a whole other strand pertaining to one of the main characters that has been left plainly ambiguous, and it’s perhaps the film’s way of showing how some people in our lives never end up making a re-appearance, no matter how much we want or need them to.
4. Sophisticated use of a frame narrative
It’s a tricky situation when a film delves into a whole new story that is meant to be fictional within the world of fiction, such as a book, film, or simply a tale being told, because it means a new set of rules have perhaps opened up, and this new story will be compared to the story outside of it.
Filmmakers are sometimes not sure of how to treat the inner narrative within the frame narrative, and can sometimes treat it lightly or give it an unusual set of rules, or stumble trying to relate it back to the frame narrative. However, Ford has managed to not trip over himself as he tiptoes around the three narratives and wields them together in a impressively balletic manner.
The story of the novel we see isn’t done cheaply and has a palpable force, yet its simply drawn storyline wouldn’t have been enough for this film; this intense story is also used in the frame narrative as a catalyst that sets off Susan reminiscing on her past relationship and what this sort of art has done to her.
The editing between the two is brilliantly done to ease the viewers’ way through this troubling novel as they also see the effect is has on Susan – the viewers see the entirety of the roadside confrontation that starts off the novel, but later scenes from the novel are more intermittently edited amongst Susan’s scenes as she (and the film) gradually get to the novel’s conclusion to show the impact it is having on her, which includes the third narrative as she remembers her marriage with Edward and what she has done to deserve this concocted revenge from him.
The film’s clever use of a frame narrative manages to handle these three different storylines, and uses them in collaboration with each other to inform the film’s core themes.