Director: Tom Ford Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhall, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson Running Time: 116 minutes
A family on a road trip is run off the road by a car of dangerous, drunk men. The score goes deathly silent. There are many voices, but everything is shot in darkness and we don’t know half of the characters and everyone is talking over each other. It’s disorienting. Faux-friendliness and sudden social rules set up to be arbitrarily broken. And punished. Fake offense. Say the wrong thing and get in trouble. Say nothing and get in trouble. It’s a nightmare scenario we all fear, some more than others, one where everything goes wrong at once and it’s impossible to keep track of the situation as it spins rapidly out of control. Suddenly, Jake Gyllenhall is outside his car and his wife, teenage daughter and the dangerous drunk men are inside. The men drive away. Lives are ruined and ended. The audience’s stomachs collectively drop out.
But it isn’t real. It’s just a story Amy Adams is reading. But then that isn’t real either. It’s all still tense and horrifying. It’s Nocturnal Animals.
Adapted from the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, the second film by fashion designer Tom Ford is as intricately designed as anything he ever did for Gucci or Yves Saint Laurent. From the very beginning, where large women dance almost entirely naked, the camera leering at every fold, Nocturnal Animals aims for its audience to be disarmed, maybe disgusted, but unable to look away. The women are part of an art piece put together by Amy Adams’ Susan Morrow, a disenchanted art dealer living in a beautiful but sterile LA house with her very LA husband, the preposterously named Hutton (Arnie Hammer). Susan is passively unhappily living the rich housewife life; her work unfulfilling, her husband unfaithful, their finances quietly on the downturn, when she gets a shock to the system-she even literally gets a papercut-when she is delivered a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhall), a heretofore failed writer.
Imagining Edward in the lead role and obvious stand-ins for herself and her daughter as the victims (played by Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber), Susan is engrossed by the story she’s been sent. It’s a tale of revenge that sees the broken family man left behind team with a local detective with a loose approach to the law (the pitch perfect Michael Shannon) to take down the murderers/rapists, in particular the chief creep played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who never quite matches the horror of his introduction). Back in ‘reality’, Susan is amazed that her ex-husband, who she didn’t believe in and always saw as fragile, could write a story like this. What gave him the inspitation? Why did he title it after a nickname he gave to her and why dedicate ‘Nocturnal Animals’ to her? Why did he send it to her? Susan can’t help but recall their past and how things fell apart after she betrayed him, giving the film three strands of storyline to play with.
Editor Joan Sobek keeps the movement from present to past to novel flowing, giving each as long as it needs before returning to one of the others. Parralleled shots and repeated imagery allow the three to blend into each other. They’re all united parts serving the one whole, the melodramatic story of the real revenge of Nocturnal Animals, the deeper cut of revenge of Edward to Susan. Shooting folks in the name of justice is one thing, but through his manuscript and the memories it inspires, Edward throws their history and Susan’s words back at her. He haunts her from the past and horrifys her with the manuscript in the present. Just as Susan says about the book she’s been sent, his ‘fuck you’ move is violent and sad.
Nocturnal Animals is strongest in its first half, where the tension of the manuscript story is at its most gut-wrenching and the critque of Susan’s world at its most acidic. Though the flashbacks are essential and mostly pay off in the present, they do show where Ford’s meticulous directing style can have problems. Jake Gyllenhall’s performance as the broken man of his book is stronger than his Good Ol’Boy turn as Edward and though Amy Adams steely exterior works for present day Susan, the cold and sterile atmosphere cultivated by Ford stifles her attempt to convey the younger, more idealistic girl who fell for Edward despite her mother’s dire warnings. She isn’t that much different in both timelines. Its difficult for genuine human emotion to come through in a world as artificial (though beautiful) as the one Ford puts together and the lack of warmth between the two young lovers prevents Susan’s fall from being as far as it could. Susan says that Edward always used to call her a ‘nocturnal animal’ because she didn’t sleep. Would he not call her a night owl? Do human beings speak this way, especially those that are in love?
Ford’s visual flair is undeniable, his work here with Irish DOP Seamus mcGarvey painting vivid pictures of the grotesque art world, empty homelife and harsh desert. He can hook in an audience and leave them unable to look away. There are criticisms to be made, but there is a sense that Ford can get better, his influences (Lynch, Kubrick, very much Hitchcock) can become more internalised and if can add an element of life to his carefully posed constructions, then the films that follow Nocturnal Animals, which itself is a film that clings to the mind determinedly, will be unforgettable.(4 / 5)