By Michael S. Goldberger
Imagine you are driving late at night on a desolate country road…hardly a speck of civilization in sight save for an occasional utility pole. It’s spooky to begin with, but nowhere near as scary as when a car suddenly appears in your rearview mirror. You make a turn, just to see. The car follows. You make a couple more, random turns. There it is, right behind you. What’s the odds? Your paranoia concedes to one of your worst fears realized. Surely you are being followed by the most deplorable, inbred ne’er-do-wells in creation.
Good thing this is merely the fiction within a novel that Susan, the female lead in director Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals,” is reading. She can put it down any time she wishes. But all the same it’s mesmerizing, and because she senses the story contains eerie messages and symbolism relating to her own life, we join in the enthusiasm. Suffice it to note, the harrowing page-turner details a horrible tale…a literary equivalent of the ghastly car accident on the side of the road. You can’t divert your eyes despite the beleaguering ugliness. A dark saga awaits.
As the backstory unspools, alternating between flashbacks and Susan’s current state of affairs, we see there’s much more to this. It’s a given that Susan, played by Amy Adams, is disenchanted with her albeit successful life as a major gallerist…a big cheese in the art world: “It’s just trash.” Plus, you don’t have to be a hotel detective to know that things aren’t all peaches and cream with her and husband #2, portrayed by Armie Hammer. So for the moment, shocking as the book is, it provides a bizarre oasis from the realities that have come to haunt our gal’s very being.
You see, the novel, received in manuscript form, is dedicated to Susan by her first husband, Edward, with whom she shared a romantic raison d’etre back in her post-college, idealistic youth. But though the relationship ended quite badly some time ago, feelings and a hopeful sense of intrigue are aroused by the tome’s arrival. Here, director Ford, who adapted the screenplay from Austin Wright’s “Tony and Susan,” begins to unpeel the numerous levels upon which his movie plays…some obvious, some suggested, and all of it soliciting your conjecture.
To add to the mystique of the implied metaphor and further our curiosity as to the hidden meanings we’re meant to guess at, Jake Gyllenhaal plays both the ex-husband/novelist and Tony, the terrorized protagonist in the story within a story. Accomplished editing manages to keep the past, the present and the tormented fantasy separate enough for our perception while planting the ominous suggestion that dramatic connections are possible.
It is at times tough going, the events of the movie’s inner nightmare a study in distasteful behavior. Were it not for our natural inquisitiveness, and the inference that this has to be leading somewhere, we’d dismiss the sadistic viciousness as purely gratuitous. But a near endless bunch of strings invite pulling for the secrets to which they may be connected. And then again, at times we’re not so sure.
While folks of a spiritual bent might opine that the hideous, initially unknowns in the car stalking Tony represent Beelzebub himself, sociologists concerned with the recent temper of the times might offer otherwise. In short, as in any dark era, the carload of ill will can arguably be construed as a mirror of the evil bred by the stubborn ignorance that now festers among us. But again, subscribing that movies and literary works are often perceived to mean things the author/filmmaker never intended in the first place, it’s your call. There’s lots to gnaw on here.
Therefore, this is one you might want to see with the Berkowitzes up the block…y’know, folks to share notes with afterwards. You keep politely suggesting that you’ll get together anyway. So see the movie, go to the diner for a bite (split the bill), and then invite ‘em back for cake and coffee. Ethel’s coming the day before…the house will be nice and neat. Don’t go crazy…just a nice cake. Then, after you expend all your critical skills dissecting the film, you can move on to politics. Doubtlessly they voted the way you did, and kindred spirits can commiserate.
This proposal for social interaction, aside from asserting the necessity for grassroots healing and planning strategy for a happy ending to our travail, is also my tangential way of informing that, going in, you really shouldn’t know too much more about the plot. However, it still behooves to note that all thespic efforts mentioned are more than up to snuff, and that Michael Shannon as a laconic, Texas lawman who aids Tony is especially profound. Just please be aware that, among its sophisticated mullings, “Nocturnal Animals” arrives at some rather beastly deductions.
“Nocturnal Animals,” rated R, is a Focus Features release directed by Tom Ford and stars Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon. Running time: 116 minutes