Nocturnal Animals (2016)

When you love someone you can’t just throw it away

If anyone understands the power of a challenging image it’s world-famous fashion designer-turned filmmaker Tom Ford. Making his cinematic debut back in 2009 with A Single Man, Nocturnal Animals marks Ford’s second dabble into the motion picture medium, the film opening with a provocative credit sequence that offended several folk back in September when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Ford’s revenge-thriller begins with a slow-motion montage that sees a number of obese middle-aged women wiggling about in the nude, clad in drum-majorette accessories, their bodies jiggling against a blood-red backdrop. It’s a little unnerving to say the least. That’s until we find out that we’re watching a display at a gallery opening, engineered by an opulent, disillusioned art maven Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) — more on her later. Although subject to different interpretations, this intro feels as though we’re being hypnotized by a coven of grotesque witches, casting a trance-like spell over the entire audience as we enter the story-within-story’s merciless grip.

'I think we need more red in this scene.'
‘I think we need more red in this scene.’

Adapted from the late American novelist Austin Wright’s 1993 book Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals weaves in and out of two central storylines that make up one cohesive whole. The first takes place in the upper echelons of the Los Angeles art world, where we meet the privileged Susan (Amy Adams), a high-class gallery owner whose wealth can be attributed to her unfaithful husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), a well-to-do powerbroker who’s generally away on business. Although Susan appears to have it all, she is very unhappy. One day, however, she receives a package from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) — after 20 years of no contact — Susan slicing her hand whilst trying to get it open. Inside she finds a manuscript titled ‘Nocturnal Animals,’ Susan eventually realizing that paper can cut deep: its name referring to her chronic insomnia, and what her ex used to call her when they were together. As Susan makes her way through the document, the chilling account comes to vivid life in her very mind.

The ‘story’ itself is set in rural Texas and focuses on a peaceful guy named Tony Hastings (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who, along with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber), is trekking through a remote desert, taking his ‘clan’ on a road trip holiday. But, when the family is terrorized by a group of menacing rednecks, led by Ray Marcus (a disturbing Aaron Taylor-Johnson), things get ugly, quick. With Susan delving deeper and deeper into the tale’s darkness, we too rummage through the bleak crooks of her mind, discovering what really transpired between Susan and Edward and where it all went sour.

'If you can't foot the bill, I guess we're sleeping in the car.'
‘If you can’t foot the bill, I guess we’re sleeping in the car.’

At its most primal, Nocturnal Animals is a cautionary tale about choices, the ones that define us and the people that have shaped us, the movie highlighting the danger of today’s disposable culture, where anything and everything can be tossed away. It’s also about the strength of literature and the medium’s ability to evoke certain feelings (within consumers) — the power of stories, if you will — Ford making us care about both of his narratives in equal measure. It’s at around the midway point where we begin to see snippets of Susan’s past, particularly when she and Edward were together and the callous way in which she left him, Susan re-evaluating certain moments in her life. We see her various put-downs, discouraging Edward to peruse a career in writing (which ironically ends up becoming his biggest strength), and her highbrow mother, Anne Sutton (Laura Linney), who express her disapproval after learning of Susan’s plans to wed Edward (whom she considers to be inferior), the Martini-sipping matriarch warning Susan that, ‘all daughters eventually turn into their mothers’ — uncomfortable realities that Edward’s writing brings to light.

Equally as impressive is Ford’s ability to juggle the story’s three parallel pieces — Susan’s reality, her past and Edward’s typescript. Ford balances his duel-narrative by way of imagery, the prolific filmmaker using visual cues to tie both accounts together — for instance, we see our two protagonists, Susan and Tony, in similar postures throughout the film: in bed, the shower and the bath. Moreover, Ford and production designer Shane Valentino, Straight Outta Compton (2015), employ textural prompts, too, the color crimson (a thematic motif) appearing in several calculated tableaux. There’s also sharp interplay between reality and artifice, chiefly the sundrenched Texan desert and its gritty Western crime feel versus the sterile shallowness of the Los Angeles cosmopolitan world — Jena Malone, The Neon Demon (2016), providing a sublimely over-the-top caricature of a gallery staffer named Sage Ross. See, Susan’s life is presented as numb and empty, while Edward’s book, on the other hand, raw and honest.

Amy Adams weighs up her Oscar chances
Amy Adams weighs up her Oscar chances

Amy Adams, American Hustle (2013), acts as the film’s nucleus, the fiery redhead delivering a subtle and nuanced rendering of Susan, a multifaceted woman whose demeanor cracks the further she delves into Ed’s vengeful ‘Nocturnal Animals,’ Adams selling all facets of the role — Susan’s polished look and steely veneer to her character’s eventual deterioration. Likewise, Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler (2014), goes through a spectrum of emotions in his double role, portraying the sweet, sensitive Edward — a wannabe writer from Susan’s Texas hometown whose heart she broke — to his surrogate, Tony — a loyal family man who’s scorned by the hands of his creator, suffering the kind of damaging loss that’ll leave someone broken forever. Michael Shannon, Take Shelter (2011), is a joy to watch, too, the Kentucky-born actor a perfect fit for his Stetson wearing lawman, Detective Bobby Andes, the guy tasked with bringing Tony’s tormentors to justice.

Disguised as a simple thriller, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is so much more — a confronting exploration of self, a study of the process by which art emerges and an ode to the potency of writing. Brimming with excellent performances and impressive visuals (plus a few Lynchian homages), Nocturnal Animals is one of those rare features, offering two narratives for the price of one. Bleakness has never looked so sleek.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Nocturnal Animals is released through Universal Pictures Australia