Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Tom Ford
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Jena Malone, Andrea Riseborough, Imogen Waterhouse.
The sophomore film from former fashion designer turned director Tom Ford after the Oscar nominated A Single Man, Nocturnal Animals is an austere and fairly bleak drama based on a little known novel Tony And Susan written by Austin Wright in 1993. It is a film that explores concepts of family, love, guilt, revenge, masculinity and what it is that makes a man.
It tells two stories through interwoven narratives. One strand follows Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a disillusioned gallery owner who has become emotionally disengaged from her work and whose husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) has been unfaithful. She receives a copy of a manuscript from her novelist ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she left twenty years earlier. The as yet unpublished novel, entitled Nocturnal Animals, is dedicated to her, and he wants her opinion. She begins to read it and its dark, violent and disturbing tale of murder and revenge and she is forced to think back on their life together and what went wrong in their marriage.
The second narrative strand, which depicts the events of the fictional novel, is the strongest, with its lurid, potboiler crime thriller elements. It revolves around a man whose family holiday turns violent and deadly. Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his family are driving along a highway late one night when they have an encounter with a trio of thugs who run them off the road. They intimidate the family, and then make off with his wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). The two women are later found dead, having been beaten and raped. With the aid of a cynical terminally ill detective named Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), Tony tracks down the two thugs and exacts revenge.
This is the second film starring Adams to be released in local cinemas this week, the other being the sci-fi thriller Arrival. Adams gives another typically strong and emotive performance as Susan as she reflects back on her relationship with Tom while reading his manuscript, but she also comes across as somewhat cold. Somehow the manuscript reveals deeply uncomfortable personal truths about their relationship, and its tone seems menacing to Susan.
The film opens with shots of obscenely and grotesquely obese, semi-naked women cavorting on stages. This turns out to be part of an art installation at Susan’s gallery but it is also a thinly veiled dig at the junk and trashy nature of American culture. These scenes are confronting and startling, and make us sit up and take notice. And that is what Ford intended. They are also a way of introducing us to Susan and her world of cutting edge and provocative art.
Ford draws superb performances from his cast. In a dual role, Gyllenhaal is as usual superb, delivering another impressive performance. He seems able to tap into the darker psyche of his character here as well as a sense of rage and grief. Adams is also solid with a more introspective and detached performance as Susan, who grows increasingly more unsettled as she reads the novel. Shannon is always interesting to watch and here he delivers another great performance as the laconic, cancer riddled detective. And Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass, etc) makes for a despicable thug as Ray, who has no redeeming qualities. Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Laura Linney and Jena Malone all pop up in smaller roles, obviously keen to work with Ford.
Nocturnal Animals is a handsomely mounted production that certainly confirms Ford’s reputation as a visual stylist. Susan’s house and her look is glamorous and designer built. Ford deftly manages to marry the gritty aesthetic and B-movie sensibility, the neo-western atmosphere and chilling violence of the Peckinpah-like revenge narrative with the emotional depths of the kitchen sink-like melodrama. And the film itself seems somewhat misogynistic in its treatment of the female characters. Editor Joan Sobel, who also edited Ford’s A Single Man, confidently moves back and forth between the two narrative strands. There are lots of clever stylistic and thematic visual links as the film moves between the two strands and there is a neat symmetry at work here.
Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, etc) brings a strong visual style to the material. Susan’s world is rather cold and sterile and grey, and takes place largely indoors, and McGarvey has shot these scenes in muted colours and a greyish palette. Tony’s story, by contrast, takes place largely outdoors and McGarvey has shot these scenes in more sombre sun drenched tones. Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski’s atmospheric, Hermannesque-like score evokes memories of classy 50s noir dramas.