December 19, 2016 -- This is a very disturbing movie on several social and psychological levels. It is the kind of movie you can't shake the next day after you watch it. It haunts you.
On one level, it is about the incalculable destruction of the soul caused by the devotion to conformity, materialism and class structure, as in the mindset of the 1950s. On other levels it is about love lost and the sterile, shallow materialism of modern society. It is also about how people nowadays won't make small sacrifices for each other's sake.
Susan Morrow (played by Amy Adams of “American Hustle”) leads an unhappy life with a husband, Hutton (played by Armie Hammer of “The Birth of a Nation”) who is cheating on her. The two live in apparent luxury, but are having significant financial problems.
One day, Susan receives a manuscript written by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (played by Jake Gyllenhaal of “Southpaw”). An attached note asks Susan to read the manuscript and let him know what she thinks of it. Edward will be in town for a few days and he invites her to contact him.
She begins to read the novel, titled “Nocturnal Animals” and dedicated to her. It is a profoundly disturbing tale of road rage on a lonely highway in West Texas, leading to rape and murder. This story plays as a movie within the movie, with Edward (Gyllenhaal) playing the main character, a man whose wife and daughter are taken from him and raped and murdered.
This story is juxtaposed with the romance, marriage, and tragic parting of Edward and Susan 19 years earlier, told in flashbacks. Susan's rejection of Edward, first, for not being a good “provider,” inspired by Susan's mother (played by Laura Linney of “Sully”) who feels that Edward is socially inferior. Later Susan rejects Edward in the most emotionally devastating way. Susan rejects love, choosing money and status.
These two stories are intertwined, the story of Susan and Edward, and the story of the man whose wife and daughter are murdered. The way these two stories are related becomes clear later in the film. In Edward's novel, the wounded man seeks revenge, aided by a lawman, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon of “Midnight Special”). Vengeance becomes a self-immolating end in itself.
In a sense, this movie is about the end of the American Dream. Not that part of the dream about owning a home and having a comfortable income, but that part of the dream about having a loving family, lasting companionship, sharing a life together and growing old together. For Edward and Susan, that dream ended, brutally, murdered.
This complex story is well written (based on the novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright) and directed by Tom Ford (“A Single Man”) and the acting is superb, especially by Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays Ray Marcus, a killer in the novel. The movie is also very well staged, with great sets, costumes, cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (“The Avengers”) and an affecting musical score composed by Abel Korzeniowski (“A Single Man”).
This movie doesn't let any of us off the hook, liberals, conservatives, feminists, anyone. It is a look into the abyss of American life that we all see, but prefer not to talk about. Like journalism, one of the purposes of art is to make the comfortable uncomfortable. Few movies do this better. This film rates an A.
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