Sleek, stylish, and quite a bit of fun, Nocturnal Animals is like a tamer version of The Neon Demon with some help from David Lynch. It’s structured around three different perspectives–past, present, and fiction–and it does a serviceable job of tying the three threads together. However, there are some limitations in the initial premise that play out as the story progresses, namely the fact that certain aspects of the narrative get shortchanged. Unfortunately, though Amy Adams gets ample screen time, her character never feels like it’s getting the substance that other characters get. Her character doesn’t really serve as as strong a link between the three perspectives as Ford believes it does. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful performance given the material at hand, and Adams is able to work wonders out of very little from the script.
Most of the film’s points come from being a frightening and gripping thriller–some come from casting Isla Fisher as Amy Adams’s book surrogate–as that’s the element of the film that resonates the most when all is said and done. This is the “fiction” element in the three-pronged approach, and it consists of a story that begins when a family is run off the road and attacked by a group of men. What follows is a violent, visceral, and emotional sequence of events that is propelled by the brilliant work of Michael Shannon (turning in the performance of the year thus far), Jake Gyllenhaal, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The film stalls a bit when it attempts to tie everything together through its overarching themes, but there is no question that Ford knows how to craft a thoroughly engrossing thriller.
Ford also knows his fashion (looking very sharp at the post-screening Q&A). From its bizarre opening credits to its ambiguous ending, this film oozes style. Ford makes a good choice by enlisting the help of Seamus McGarvey, who perfectly captures both the high-end emptiness of the present day storyline and the sun-scorched desert of the fictional. In addition, Abel Korzeniowski’s score is a gorgeous complement to the stories on display, and Arianne Phillips’s costumes are impeccable. A couple supporting role casting decisions also deserve shoutouts: Laura Linney and Jena Malone both kill their scenes.
Ultimately, this is a film that reaches for more than it’s able to accomplish, but it’s probably the best possible film that can be made with this premise. It’s about many things, but the transformative and reflective power of writing seems to be the idea that sticks. We express ourselves in stories in such raw and personal ways, pouring everything onto the page as our lives give our words more fodder. Eventually, there reaches a point where we might not be able to tell fact from fiction.