Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Nocturnal Animals Review
There are few films as perfect that were released in the last ten years as 2009’s A Single Man, the daring and elegant and erotic and mesmerizing LGBT film that earned Colin Firth an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. There’s such an assured look and style to the film and great confidence to the storytelling that it astonished me to learn after watching it that it was a first-time director, let alone a man who had spent much of his career in fashion. Clearly the novel A Single Man, written by Christopher Isherwood, spoke to Tom Ford, and he managed to translate the story to a screen in a way no other artist could have. It is a film I have watched probably four or five times since it was released, and it hasn’t lost any of its power.
What I lost instead over the years was hope that Ford might direct a second film. Was this guy a one-hit wonder when it came to filmmaking? Did he just have one movie in him and nothing else? It’s happened to great artists before. Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter. Or Herk Harvey, Carnival of Souls. But I wanted to think that sooner or later the very busy Ford would get around to making his second feature, and here it finally is— Nocturnal Animals, based on a novel by Austin Wright. And although it doesn’t match the mastery of A Single Man, it is an impressive and unique thriller that in many ways is much more ambitious than Ford’s first film.
The hook is that it’s really two movies in one. The first is the story of Susan (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner who lives a life of luxury with a deliciously handsome young husband (Armie Hammer), and yet she still feels like something’s missing. One day out of the blue she receives a manuscript in the mail from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a novel that Susan discovers is dedicated to her. She starts reading it that night, and then we go into the second movie, a visualization of Edward’s novel, about a husband and father Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) whose family is attacked while driving on a lonely road late at night. In the days to come he works with a detective (a fabulous Michael Shannon, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance) to track down the men who committed a heinous crime against his family.
One of these movies works beautifully, while the other one only works in fits and starts. The story I was most interested in was Susan’s story — this one ultimately feels more akin to Ford’s sensibilities, and it offers more emotion overall. Susan’s story is all about regret, what-ifs, dreams gone sour, and there’s never a moment in this part of the film that I’d cut a frame from. Laura Linney is maybe a touch too theatrical portraying Susan’s mother in a flashback — her wild hair and accent offer too many distractions — but this is a minor quibble in an otherwise gripping storyline. All the flashbacks feel necessary, with Adams and Gyllenhaal looking appropriately young and idealistic, and the modern-day scenes of Adams show her beaten down, tired, lost in her own head. Her final scene in the film is devastating.
The other part of the movie, the thriller dramatized from Edward’s novel, has a tremendous beginning, with suspense for at least ten straight minutes that never lets up. I never would have imagined Ford as a great director of action and tension — A Single Man is such a quiet, intimate film — but he comes through in this regard, taking us to a very dark place by the end of the first reel. My disappointment in this section is that it goes on too long. We get scene after scene of Tony chasing down the bad guys, having long talks with the detective, and it all feels a tad pedestrian, and worse, not as tied into the other narrative as it could be. I’d guess that the story within the story gets about seventy percent of the movie, when it should have been, in my mind, more like forty to fifty. I found myself at times wanting to go back to Amy Adams, wanting to see how her character’s reacting to the story. She’s the one I’m most interested in.
But Ford definitely gets points for ambition, and again, I was thrilled to see him stretch as an artist and not just make a spiritual sequel to A Single Man. I’d rather watch an ambitious film that’s a bit messy at times than a strongly made movie that takes absolutely no risks, and so Nocturnal Animals is still very much a film I recommend. There are traces of the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Sam Peckinpah, as well as the more recent Hell or High Water, and it’s a film, like A Single Man, that I will be thinking about for a long, long time. From its outrageous opening titles to its haunting final shot, Nocturnal Animals is further proof that Tom Ford is a born filmmaker, and I sure hope it doesn’t take seven more years for his next movie.
Watching Like a Writer
Something I’ve always been fascinated by is how to capture writing both in film and in novels. On film, I think Adaptation, Sideways, and Wonder Boys are great, to name a few, and of course Nocturnal Animals does something unique with the idea of capturing writing on-screen. In novels, I always turn to Stephen King’s Misery as a tremendously exciting story that also happens to be about a writer and his process. One of my latest novels, It’s Come to This, is about a screenwriter pursuing his Hollywood dreams, and I thought a lot about how to capture the writing process on the page, to make it compelling and not dry, never boring for the reader. It’s not an easy thing to do.
Think of a story about a protagonist who is a writer. What would the story be about? And how would you capture the writing process?