For obvious reasons, the notion of a story taking place within a story raises all sorts of potential problems. Keeping track of two entirely different and disconnected plotlines at once is hard enough for the writer, much less the audience. Of course, that’s not to say it can’t be done well.
The framing device of The Princess Bride is a fine example, as it uses the main story to make various thematic observations. A far more common approach (as in Adaptation, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Noises Off”, Birdman, etc.) is to craft one story so it reflects the creative efforts and personal conflicts of the cast in the other story.
Nocturnal Animals (named for the story within the story) is something else entirely.
The story within the story is a violent revenge novel focused on Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), who goes out with his wife and daughter (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber, respectively) on a camping trip in West Texas. Alas, the family is run off the side of the road by a crew of young asshole rednecks (led by Ray Marcus, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Long story short (too late!), Tony is separated from the rest of his family and left for dead in the desert. He later finds out that his wife and daughter were both raped and killed. So now he’s out for justice, alongside the police officer who takes the case. And since Lt. Bobby Andes is played by Michael Shannon, I’m sure you can guess how ugly the revenge quest gets.
The novel was written by Edward Sheffield (also Gyllenhaal), who inexplicably dedicated the book to his ex-wife and sent her the manuscript. This would be Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), the protagonist of our other story. She’s now running an immensely successful art gallery and married to a respectable entrepreneur (Armie Hammer) who’s always away from home and probably cheating on his wife.
Given that the book was sent to and dedicated to Susan (whom Edward used to call a “nocturnal animal”), you’d expect the two stories to have some connective tissue between them. Without getting into specifics, we do eventually learn that “Nocturnal Animals” is the story of a man who lost his wife and child because he was a good man living in an evil world. Because he was too naive and optimistic (read: “weak”) to survive and keep hold of his family.
So in many ways, it’s a big “fuck you” to his ex-wife.
See, Susan is the type of yuppie white person who can never be satisfied. In the time since her divorce from Edward, she and her new husband have become immensely rich and successful, with all their wants and needs taken care of, yet they both feel so empty and moan over what they haven’t got. It’s insufferable, and the film is sure to call them out on that.
In point of fact, it’s interesting to note that the uber-rich (like Susan and her husband) and the unwashed masses (Ray and his buddies) are both made to look awful in this picture. Pretty much the only sympathetic characters in this whole piece are middle-class Tony and his middle-class family. Which brings me back to Edward.
As the film continues, we gradually see how Susan became disenchanted with Edward and his sentimental view of the world. He’s perceived as unrealistic and naive, too romantic for his own good and not ambitious enough to get anywhere. As opposed to Susan, who can’t seem to fill that hole inside of her no matter how hard she pushes herself. So the two of them divorced, and now Edward is expressing his feelings about that through a revenge thriller.
This is honestly some pretty interesting stuff for a movie. Too bad there’s so much other shit surrounding it. As the plot unfolds, we’re sent on so many different tangents about art, parenting, marital infidelity, religion, and other concepts. The movie is clearly going for thematic depth, but all these different ideas and subplots are presented in such a way that it all dissolves into an incoherent mess.
My favorite example comes with the opening frame. We’re hit with full-frontal nudity on literally the very first fade-in, as we’re treated to an opening credits sequence focused on plus-sized older women posing entirely nude. Who are these women? No clue. What do they have to do with the story? Not a damned thing, so far as I can tell. This is just the latest art exhibit in Susan’s gallery, and it’s barely mentioned again at any point in the story. I want to stress emphatically that this is the very first thing we see in the whole movie, the sequence that gives us our first impression of the story, and it actually has fuck-all to do with the story.
What makes it even worse is that the following sequence is intercut with aerial views of freeway traffic for no discernible reason. The editing only continues to sabotage the film, as Tony and Susan are deliberately intercut with each other in such a way as to mirror each other. This implies that Tony is supposed to be emblematic of Susan, even though we eventually learn that makes no sense. Though at least the visuals are otherwise impressive, with shaky-cam used to just the right degree and some exceptional uses of color.
Then there’s the cast. Oh my God, this cast. I’ve already listed Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and those are just the leading players. In the supporting cast, we’ve got Armie Hammer, Isla Fisher, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, Jena Malone, and Laura Linney, all proven talents. Most of these actors only get maybe one scene apiece, but they leave such a strong impression that I barely even care if their scene could’ve been cut with no harm done. There seriously isn’t a bad actor in this whole cast, and they all make a meal out of the material given to them.
Nocturnal Animals is regrettably overdone. The story within a story is a genuinely compelling (and really kind of fucked-up) revenge tale, given some intriguing new facets by the overarching Amy Adams plotline. Plus, the cast is exceptionally strong, loaded to the brim with talented actors who bring the house down. Unfortunately, the filmmakers crammed in too many thematic ideas and went overboard with the stylistic flourishes, watering the result down into something pretentious and incoherent.
The cast alone makes this worth a rental, but this definitely isn’t something worth going out of your way for.