The NeverEnding Story, Nocturnal Animals, and Literary Avatars

No, Amy Adams doesn’t ride a luckdragon. Sorry.

Two films led by Amy Adams have been released in recent weeks. One is a grand, yet intimate, exploration of love, progress, family, and hope. The other is a psychologically violent and cathartic release. Between the two, I never expected Nocturnal Animals would be the film that affected me so deeply.

To call the plot of Nocturnal Animals inconsequential would be a misnomer. More accurately, to recount it in any detail just seems irrelevant. It’s the simplicity of the story that holds much of the film’s power; while immersed in the simplicity, the viewer is able to take a deep breath, look around, and find exactly what they need the film to be. In many ways the experience of the viewer is shared with Adams’s character as she reads a manuscript sent to her by her ex-husband, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

The narrative of this film exists in two forms – the movie proper, and the novel within – and it expertly teeters between the literal and metaphorical. Adams must explore her current position in the universe, and come to terms with a past that’s presented as the novel unfolds. There’s an important point to be made here, and it helps to think back to the NeverEnding Story. As viewers, we are privy to both Adams’s actual, lived life – past and present – and the dramatic interpretations of those same events in the form of the live-action novel. If Bastian is a present and driving force as he reads about The Nothing, then Adams is just as present and influencing as she reads Nocturnal Animals. While she is not able to change the story by calling out a character’s name, she is the conduit through which we receive the story, and therefore, it’s steeped in her psychic baggage. Stay with me here – not only is the story we see an interpretation of the character’s reading, it’s also a production in which Adams is every character.

There’s a point in the movie where Adams proclaims that Gyllenhaal needs to stop writing about himself. His defense is that all writers write about themselves. Flash-forward to present day, he sends Adams the manuscript with a clear note that he was able to write it because of her. I know, I’m taking some big swings here, but his successful output is because, instead of writing about himself, he wrote about his ex-wife.

The characters in Gyllenhaal’s story are all Amy Adams. Even though the male lead of Nocturnal Animals the novel is played in the movie by Gyllenhaal himself, there is no reason to assume this makes him an avatar for writer-Gyllenhaal. The book is cast by Adams, she puts Gyllenhaal in the driver’s seat; there is no indication that the author ever intended it to be read that way.

The Nocturnal Animals film toggles between flashbacks, present day, and the story unfolding in the novel. They are all intertwined, curling around each other until it doesn’t much matter where we are in time and space. To the film’s strength, the novel is just as compelling as the movie that surrounds it; it’s taut, tense, and mean. While the story of Adams’s life is a tug of war between restraint, expectations, and discipline, the story Gyllenhaal tells in his book is aggressive and harsh. His interpretation of their failed marriage appears to be clear and brutal.

Adams herself admits to treating her former husband brutally, and dispatching him carelessly. This brutality is mirrored within the book’s narrative; there’s death, and loss, and while it is far more visceral in the story, it’s just as tangible in Adams’s waking life.

There are moments when the two stories seem to brush against each other, but we never get to the point of full immersion (there’s no riding on the back of luckdragons here). While I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, this leaves a void – a sadness and loss that echoes. It’s only fitting, because this story was never about Adams and her closure (even though it was all about her), it was about a character we never even see: the present day, successful writer that Gyllenhaal finally becomes. The fact that he was able to find an outlet for his loss, and share it with the source of his despair, highlights just how adrift Adams truly is.

Within this exquisite and poignant film, there is a very straightforward, nasty story about a family run off the road and terrorized. This fictitious novel contains fully realized characters with heartache, story arcs, and closure that is independent from our real world narrative. One of the many strengths of this film is that it presents two complementary stories that not only run parallel, but also intersect. It’s quite a feat of narrative strength.

Since this is a Tom Ford film, I expected it to be gorgeous, and it doesn’t disappoint. Lovely long shots and immaculate set design populate the film. The beauty is only enhanced by the sadness, desperation, and cruelty that live at this film’s core.

The performances are strong, and Michael Shannon is pitch perfect.

Within this tale of allegory and metaphor, I found myself grasping for the literal – I found myself thinking about Atreyu and Bastian: two sides of the same coin that elevated one another. It was clear that the world within the story was affected by the boy hidden in the school attic. Adams is not quite so literally intertwined, but as the book comes to a close, it’s apparent that each character in Nocturnal Animals exists because of her, whether the intention of its author or not.