Nocturnal Animals: Movie Review
Back in 2009 fashion designer Tom Ford turned heads with his directorial debut, the riveting A Single Man. It’s taken six years for his follow-up, and though it doesn’t quite equal his first effort (though it's really close), Nocturnal Animals is still a stunning film and well worth the attention it’s receiving, including its three Golden Globe nominations (one of which Ford earned for Best Director).
It’s a deeply affecting, often stomach-churning film that succeeds on multiple levels. And if not for a few moments of Ford trying a little too hard, it’s quite possible Nocturnal Animals would be ending 2016 as one of the year’s best. Instead it will have to settle for just being one of its most memorable.
Amy Adams continues her red-hot streak as Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan Morrow, a sad and rueful woman who is as hard as a cinder block and just as cold. She’s stuck in a faithless second marriage, and her business is failing. When she receives a mailed manuscript from her long-forgotten first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), she becomes haunted by the “horrible, unforgivable” thing she did to him almost two decades earlier, and the film kicks into gear.
Nocturnal Animals deftly weaves three stories into one seamless tale─present-day Susan as she reads Edward’s book, the presentation of the book’s plot, and also flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s life together. It’s a hypnotic exercise in storytelling, which Ford adapted himself from Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan.
The most powerful story is the one from the book, telling the tale of a Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura (the expertly-cast Isla Fisher), and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber), who are attacked by a trio of thugs during a middle-of-the-night road trip through west Texas. The culmination of the events is Nocturnal Animals’ most harrowing moment, and it throws Tony into full vengeance mode. He meets up with haggard lawman Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), who leads the charge in tracking down the three attackers.
Back in the real world, Susan is reading along, and her reactions to the story are just as jarring as the transitions in the film. Ford does a brilliant job juggling the plot lines, and the pace of the film never wavers, ramping up to the inevitable reveal of Susan’s horrible offence, and then even beyond that. Ford also takes great care to draw parallels, both visually and thematically, between the two worlds, further heightening the film's psychological affect.
Adams, who earned who own 2017 Golden Globe nomination for last month’s Arrival, does perhaps her most understated work to date in Nocturnal Animals. It’s a deeply moving performance that cuts to the bone. Gyllenhaal, who I contend is the most egregiously underrated actor working today, does excellent work yet again, and he particularly shines alongside the always-mesmerizing Shannon.
From its shocking opening credits sequence, straight through to the brilliant ending, Nocturnal Animals will make you scream, look away, cry, freak out, and even chuckle (on purpose) a little, all as it compels you to hold on for dear life. Ford is truly a gifted director, and if it continues to take six years for him to give us such gripping films, I'll be waiting right here.