Duration: 117 mins
Tom Ford’s second feature film weaves seductive style and chilling tension.
Review by Alex Griffin
Tom Ford caused a stir when he first ventured from a successful career in the fashion world to lead from behind the camera with 2009’s A Single Man. Ford proved then that he had a superb eye for visual details and for creating a mood within a piece of cinema - not an easy thing to do. Here, with his second feature and second adaptation, Nocturnal Animals (based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan) Ford confirms once again that he understand how to bring aesthetic, performance and story together to create superior cinema.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is the proprietor of a high end art gallery. She lives in a prism-like conceptual Los Angeles home with her coldly distant millionaire husband (Armie Hammer). ‘What right have I not to be happy?!" Susan exclaims, as she moves through her exclusively wealthy yet vacuous world.
One day, out of the blue, Susan receives a package from her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) whom she hasn’t seen in nearly twenty years. We learn that Edward used to refer to her as a ‘nocturnal animal’ and the package is, in fact, a manuscript he has written bearing the same mysterious title. Upon opening the manuscript Susan immediately acquires a paper cut - a promise of the visceral nature of the space she's about to enter.
As Susan starts to read, the film’s story-within-the-story - or is it really the same story? - unfolds in a sequence of horrific events. The parallel narrative opens with Tony, who Susan visualises as a metaphorical Edward (Gyllenhaal, doubling up) driving his family along a deserted highway through the eerie West Texan night. They are run off the road by a group of local rednecks (led by a spectacularly menacing Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The scene that follows is so chillingly tense that we feel every pang of sheer terror as experienced by Edward’s wife, played by Isla Fisher - a virtual Amy Adams for all intents and purposes.
From here on, the viciously gothic fantasy world of Edward’s manuscript converges and intertwines with the threads of Susan’s own clinical existence - the fierce dustbowl landscape providing a sharp juxtaposition to the gleaming facades of her own reality.
Ford has spoken about being simultaneously mesmerised and sickened by contemporary culture. Nocturnal Animals shines a flashlight through the transparent exterior of modern consumerism. On one level it's a cautionary tale about the seduction of materialism, the mistake of believing that wealth is a cure for dissatisfaction. We glimpse, through flashbacks of Susan’s life with Edward, a warmth and aliveness that is absent from the place she now inhabits. Susan has become sleek and polished but fundamentally cold, empty and alone.
Essentially (and this point is made so viscerally it leaves you virtually stunned) it's a warning against not being true to yourself. Susan, through her own inherited fears, makes choices that compromise her authentic ambition and suppress entirely her emotional needs. “Do you ever feel like your life has turned into something you never intended?” she exclaims. It's this laced-with-despair rhetorical question that underpins the whole piece.
Susan, in forsaking her own heart for the ultimately hollow delights of comfort, sacrifices eventual fulfilment. The damage is catastrophic - the death and decay of Edward’s script are a manifestation of the void of Susan’s real inescapable world. The choices we make, when we go against ourselves, will come back to haunt us. Cruelty, fear, revenge, isolation, regret provide a vortex that spirals downward to a ghastly, if ambiguous, conclusion.
The complexity and visual perfection of Nocturnal Animals ensure its compelling hold over your senses. Dynamic performances from the entire ensemble, especially Michael Shannon and Laura Linney in support will no doubt see it elevated, come awards season. It’s deserving of such favour, as is Ford for his exquisite attention to detail and intuition. He reminds us of the danger of believing we can avoid loneliness - something that is inextricably part of the human condition.