NOCTURNAL ANIMALS – Abel Korzeniowski
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Nocturnal Animals is a film about violence, but not in the way you might expect. Amy Adams stars as Susan, the impossibly rich owner of an elite Los Angeles art gallery, who is trapped in an increasingly loveless marriage to the handsome but disinterested Hutton (Armie Hammer). One day her world is rocked when the manuscript of a soon-to-be-published novel is delivered to her home; the manuscript is from her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), and as Hutton is away on business, Susan decides to read it. The manuscript – which is titled ‘Nocturnal Animals’ and is dedicated ‘for Susan’ – tells the story of Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), who is driving through west Texas with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber), and who is forced to undergo an experience of unimaginable horror when they are menaced on the highway by a gang of shit-kicking rednecks led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). As Susan reads, she begins to interpret the story as a metaphor for her failed marriage to Edward, and is forced to come to terms with the consequences of her actions in the past.
Nocturnal Animals is directed by fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford, his second film after the acclaimed A Single Man, and is, as you would expect, spectacularly beautiful from a visual point of view. It features some of the best contemporary production design, costume design, and hair styling I have ever seen, but Ford also shows he has a keen eye for showcasing the vast landscapes of the American west at their brutal best. Thematically the film is fascinating, working on multiple levels, and examining multiple concepts. It makes the case that the emotional pain one suffers during the breakdown of a relationship can be just as traumatic as physical pain, and that the after-affects can leave scars that take just as long to heal. A simmering undercurrent of revenge bubbles through the entire film, as each of the lead characters muse on the slights done unto them by others; it’s also an unflattering look at how many of us, through either choice or circumstance, end up becoming the very people we always wanted to avoid becoming. Ford’s adaptation of the novel ‘Tony & Susan’ by Austin Wright is outstanding, and Adams, Gyllenhaal, and supporting actor Michael Shannon are all worthy of Academy Award consideration, as is the film’s score by Los Angeles-based Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski.
This is Korzeniowski’s first American film score in three years, him having spent the last couple of years writing music for Polish films like Ziarno Prawdy, and more notably three seasons of the wonderful Gothic horror TV series Penny Dreadful. Korzeniowski is an unashamedly old-fashioned composer, and I mean this in the most positive way; he writes music that is bold in its emotional content, clear in its classical origins, and relies almost entirely on the strength of clean orchestral lines to carry the listener, without the need for electronic bells and whistles or digital trickery. Like his previous works, Nocturnal Animals is a score of outstanding classical beauty; recorded in London, it makes use of a large string orchestra, with only occasional additional coloring from brass, woodwinds, and piano.
The most prominent theme relates to Susan herself, and is first heard in the spectacular opening cue, “Wayward Sisters.” It’s a sweeping, swooning, enormously emotional piece featuring virtuoso performances by Gabrielle Lester on violin, Nick Cooper on cello, and David Arch on piano. In the film it underscores the shocking opening title sequence of a quartet of spectacularly overweight women dancing, unashamedly naked for all the world to see. Korzeniowski says that the theme relates to Susan, and to these four women, as a commentary on the nature of embracing life and being bold in art; whereas Susan rejects her own artistic tendencies out of fear of failure, and seeks to denigrate the art of others in favor of pragmatic safety, these four obese women celebrate everything about themselves, allowing their own flaws to be revealed without compunction, and this is why the music in this scene is celebratory, almost rapturous.
Stylistically, Susan’s theme also has clear allusions to the work of Bernard Herrmann, especially the “Scene d’Amour” from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which also plays into the film’s secondary element as a tense thriller. Further performances of Susan’s theme occur in “Restless,” where it is lonely, with prominent string tremolos, and in “City Lights,” which is thoughtful, contemplative, and a little wistful.
The part of the score which underscores the film-of-the-book tends to be much less extravagant, instead embracing a stylistic tone that is much more tense and agitated. “Off the Road” begins with the brief set of string tremolos that, previously, ushered in statements of Susan’s theme; however, rather going into that theme, they instead segue into a nail-biting sequence of staccato nervousness and apprehension. Here, Korzeniowski pits two sets of rhythms against each other contrapuntally; one slightly frantic, representing the increasing desperation of Tony and his family, and the other one relentless, unyielding, inevitable, signifying the threat Ray and his gang of thugs represent. Low, almost subliminal brass pulses add depth to the sense of danger, and become more and more prominent as the cue progresses.
A secondary theme emerges in “The Field,” which appears to be a heartbreaking, distraught-sounding inversion of Susan’s theme, wherein the three recurring central notes of the theme are played in the reverse direction. This really showcases Korzeniowski’s cleverness and his understanding of the film’s subtext – by reversing Susan’s theme, he is subtly underlining the film’s point that Edward’s novel is an extreme reflection of his own life and his shattered relationship with Susan, and that everything his literary protagonist goes through is an expression of the emotions Edward himself suffered as a result of Susan’s betrayal.
Other cues of note include “A Solitary Woman,” a rhythmic, hypnotic piano piece surrounded by classical scales and sprightly string accompaniment, which is intentionally designed to reference the score for A Single Man (listen to “Mescaline” from that score), and draw parallels between Colin Firth’s character in that film, and Amy Adams’s character in this one. This is something I have never seen a composer other than James Horner do; throughout his career, Horner would use similar thematic, rhythmic, or instrumental ideas to illustrate recurring narrative concepts across multiple films, and it’s fascinating to me that Korzeniowski – possibly at director Ford’s behest – has apparently done something similar here.
Meanwhile, cues such as “Exhibition,” “Revenge,” “Crossroads,” and “Mothers,” ratchet up the pressure with a series of tense sustains, shifting chords, and undulating Herrmanesque string figures, often with a unique differentiating sound or idea at their core. “Exhibition,” for example, is overlaid with orgasmic breathing, while “Revenge” employs soft woodwind accents and a re-orchestrated variation of the piano motif from “A Solitary Woman,” and “Crossroads” features unusual wooden creaking.
“Table for Two” underscores the film’s quietly devastating final scene, and features a gentle piano performance of the three-note theme from “The Field” accompanied by a string wash, which gradually segues into a full performance of Susan’s theme; the segue occurs just as the extent of Edward’s revenge becomes apparent, and as Susan finally realizes the devastating effect her actions had on him. The meaningful orchestral swells, the cymbal rings, and the generally lush orchestrations here really add to the sense of heightened melodrama. An alternate version of “The Field,” and an abstract, dream-like final cue entitled “Fairy Tale,” bring this wonderful album to a close.
The score for Nocturnal Animals is short, at just a hair over thirty minutes, but there actually isn’t that much more music in the film. Ford and Korzeniowski spotted the film sparsely, leaving much of the film un-scored, so that when the music does come in it is more impactful. Jerry Goldsmith knew that knowing when not to have music in your film is almost as important as knowing when to make a bold musical statement, and its things like this which really make me think that Abel Korzeniowski is on the cusp of becoming one of film music’s next truly great composers. Through scores like A Single Man, Copernicus Star, W.E., Escape from Tomorrow, and Romeo & Juliet, as well as his work on Penny Dreadful, the Pole has shown that he is a composer with the sensitivity to fully get to the heart of the story his film is telling, while simultaneously having the talent to write music that has depth, compositional intelligence, and a romantic symphonic sound that is not ashamed to enthrall its audience with thematic beauty. Personally, I think Nocturnal Animals is one of the finest purely dramatic scores of 2016, and if the film goes on to be a major player at the Academy Awards next year, I can easily see it snagging Korzeniowski his first Oscar nomination.
Buy the Nocturnal Animals soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Wayward Sisters (2:56)
- Exhibition (1:13)
- Restless (1:21)
- A Solitary Woman (2:35)
- Off the Road (4:27)
- Revenge (3:15)
- The Field (2:50)
- Crossroads (2:56)
- Mothers (2:31)
- City Lights (1:15)
- Table for Two (3:23)
- The Field [Alternate] (2:57)
- Fairy Tale (2:15)
Running Time: 33 minutes 53 seconds
Silva Screen (2016)
Music composed and conducted by Abel Korzeniowski. Orchestrations by Abel Korzeniowski. Featured musical soloists Gabrielle Lester, Nick Cooper and David Arch. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Edited by Stuart Morton. Album produced by Abel Korzeniowski.