Synopsis – An art gallery owner is haunted by her ex-husband’s novel, a violent thriller she interprets as a veiled threat and a symbolic revenge tale.
My Take – About seven years ago, former Gucci fashion designer Tom Ford made his filmmaking debut in the form of the very stylish A Single Man, a film which focused on the life of a troubled college teacher who lost his lover that generously granted its lead actor, Colin Firth with an Oscar nomination. While the latter film had some dark undertones, Ford’s second venture is a dark and devilishly stylish thriller that aims to assault on the senses without being in danger of being a case of style over substance. Though style is a major attribute here, the story does well and although it may be dark and have moments of being a heavily immersive film noir, with its clever music style and clever editing, it’s fair to say that Ford‘s perfectionism makes this one of the most powerful films I’ve seen all year. In this tale of redemption, revenge, love and cruelty, Ford makes it difficult for an unsuspecting audiences my opening the film with a strong musical score to reveal rotund, morbidly obese girls dancing topless upon pedestals seemingly pretending to be debutantes. Adding to the fanfare special effect confetti drops down and through the frame. From the gaudy and gratuitous opening credits to its varied palette of moody colors, it screams excess and expense. But unlike many films that feature visuals like these, the film doesn’t paint them positively. Instead, our main character is trapped in a terrifying limbo of what she admits is her own creation. Bordering on the macabre, the tone for the film has been set. Based on the 1993 novel ‘Tony and Susan’ by Austin Wright, the story follows Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a modern art exibit who lives in a posh residence with her business-oriented husband Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer), with whom she believes her relationship is teetering on the brink, mainly as Susan suspects the latter is cheating on her.
The unbidden arrival of a manuscript written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she jolted 20 years ago, casts her mind back to the bittersweet recollection of their jinxed relationship. They married for love, but Edward, a struggling writer, is deemed “too weak” for the ambitious, capable art student Susan, pinpointed by Susan’s mother Anne (Laura Linney), Susan boldly defies her assertion but, the truth is, mother is always right about her daughter and more disheartening, every daughter becomes her mother in the long run. The break- up is a big blow to Edward, not helped by him catching Susan with Hutton in an uncompromised state. The manuscript is a novel written by Edward with the titular name is a Western revenge thriller. In the novel, its protagonist, an ordinary guy Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), embarks on a family vacation with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber) in the backwoods of Texas, one night when they are driving on the highway, road rage is engendered between them and three local ruffians, Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Lou (Karl Glusman) and Turk (Robert Aramayo), strife follows and mounts to an unnervingly edge-of-your-seat intensity. Tony is not a violent guy, even during the distressing moment when Laura and India are strong-armed into riding with Ray and Turk in their vehicle, meanwhile Lou forces Tony to drive in another with him, Tony comes off too powerless to save his family, thus, the tale sends its harrowing message: it is Tony’s “weak” nature that should be at least partially responsible for the tragedy incurred to his wife and daughter, but is it? (I think some of us will differ.) With all the efficiency and predictability of police procedural and post-trauma recovery, Tony’s revenge, exacted one year later – which is aided by detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), who is bent on seeking justice within their own hands – eventually hinges on the central question, can a civilized man pull the trigger when facing rank vice, even he has an irrefutable motivation to do so? In another world, can Tony pass the ultimate manhood test, to be a man defined by a rigid frame of mind? The manuscript drastically stirs Susan’s psyche, she is intrigued, emotionally affected by the story’s undercurrent of emasculation and humiliation, and attempted to meet Edward for the first time in 20 years, but Edward has something else in store for her. I didn’t know what to expect from this film as I hadn’t seen any trailers and Ford’s film ended up blowing me away. The way Ford tells the story showcases how inventive and powerful he is as a filmmaker, the narratives of both Susan’s life and Edward’s novel combining brilliantly and leaving me in a trance like state. The concept of a “film within a film” is not new, but here the LA sequence, the book and the flashback scenes are beautifully merged into a seamless whole where you never seem to get lost or disorientated. Ford‘s transitions between in and out of the fictional narrative – and back and forth between Susan’s current life and the life he once shared with Edward – are wonderfully adept, as it adds some more style to the already seemingly endlessly stylish story; all the strands wrapping neatly around the body of the thesis like a well-tailored suit, as Ford did once design and tailor Daniel Craig‘s elegant three-piece Gucci suit for Casino Royale (2005). Edward’s novel provides the film with its dark soul, the story of Tony Hastings is pretty heavy stuff but it plays an essential part in making this such powerful viewing. The novel’s power proves Susan was wrong to have lost faith in him as a writer. Her own dissatisfaction with her luxurious life (and husband) and her high-quality art gallery similarly proves she was wrong to have abandoned her initial calling, making art, which paralleled her leaving him. In her new life she can’t sleep because — despite her elegance, status, culture and material success — she is still the “nocturnal animal” Edward called her, a person of imagination and creativity. She can’t sleep because she denied both her own nature as an artist and her love for Edward. In director Ford‘s stellar and meticulously made film, even side conversations have substance and pictures on walls are connected to the story line. Complex and always engrossing, this film is a delicate balance of style and substance. While one story strand may prove more involving in its non-linear structure to the others, all of the tales do complement each other. The sum of the parts makes the whole film work convincingly.
It’s mostly because of director Ford‘s sleight-of-hand that masterfully moves the stories along to an ending that may satisfy some and mystify others. Certain scenes alone make the film worth watching, this includes an unorthodox interrogation by Bobby Andes, who is extremely ruthless and convincing along with Susan’s mother who is even more brutal, in her own way, than the detective. In a separate flashback scene, where all that is heard is a heartbeat, I was spellbound. The unexpected ending, the even more surprising opening, the twists and turns, and depth of the film, thrilled and delighted me. I felt that with my own understanding that this film is not really about the characters but it is about their feelings, their experiences and their emptiness. These elements made the film what it is and they were coursing through the characters and the plot, and it has been created in such a fine way that it is quite unbearable to watch, as you get attached to their feelings and their experiences you truly feel that emptiness inside of Susan, Edward and also Tony. As writer and director Ford does seem to bite the hand that fed him in his other career, but it seems he knows his subject all too well and is unabashed in exposing the ugly truth about the elite few. His direction is concise and the story-within-a-story portion of the film is brimming with tension while his other narratives create a revealing sad and disillusioned world. He keeps the melodramatic aspects of the plot in check. The three settings — the NYC college world, the LA gallery scene, the arid waste of West Texas — provide a geographical summary of America. The biggest flaw with this well made film is director Ford‘s continuing perpetuation of stereotypes in his script: shallow and unhappy narcissists living the good life, Deliverance-style Texas rednecks who enjoy terrorizing the helpless, the dreamer who wants to write the bestselling novel, the selfish unhappily married rich but successful female executive, the handsome philandering husband, the snobbish Waspish mother, all are present and accounted for. Plus some sequences, especially a rape scene are just too shocking to absorb. Coming to the performances, the film features a very impressive ensemble cast all at the top of their game. Amy Adams yet again proves why she’s one of the most versatile actresses with a performance that just simply astonishing. It is a difficult role to play as her character is not the most endearing person. Yet she layers this introspective self-absorbed woman with such nuanced reactions and her restraint not to overact makes her character all the more real. Jake Gyllenhaal continues his extraordinary stretches of virtuosity in front of the camera, unleashes his show-stopping elemental intensity in his dual roles, especially in Tony, a character poles apart from his strapping figure, a meek sheep unfairly punished for his nature, it is a heartbreaking display of bravura. Michael Shannon stands out in his effortless turn as a terminally-ill Texan cop equipped with irresistible tics, brazenly unperturbed in his relentless hunt. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, whose stardom hardly takes off after his breakthrough in Matthew Vaughn‘s Kick Ass (2010), followed by roles in films like Godzilla (2015) & Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), has been further pigeonholed in extremely unsympathetic roles notwithstanding, finally finds a knack to lighten the screen with his antagonist turn. In supporting roles, Armie Hammer, Isla Fisher, Karl Glusman, Jenna Malone, Ellie Bamber, Michael Sheen, Laura Linney , and Andrea Riseborough are excellent. On the whole, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a gripping, stylishly written, directed and acted, spine-chilling noir thriller that will haunt you even after the credits roll.
Directed – Tom Ford
Rated – R
Run Time – 116 minutes