Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon
Director: Tom Ford
Running Time: 117 mins
Synopsis: LA art gallery owner Susan (Adams) lives a highly successful life amidst the glitz and glamour of the rich, but she feels empty. One day her ex-husband Tony (Gyllenhaal) sends her the manuscript of his new book, which tells of a brutal revenge story set in the bleak west. As she reads, and we see the story come to life, she finds herself examining the choices she has made.
It wouldn’t be a great shock to say that fashion designer extraordinaire turned film auteur Tom Ford is obsessed with image. Not just in terms of how impeccably dressed everyone is, and make no mistake everyone here cleans up real good, but how the smartly clothed facade can mask inner pain or insecurity. In his debut triumph A Single Man, the beautiful designs were a tool to hide the grief worn by its titular lead (a never better Colin Firth) after losing his lover. For his sophomore effort, a troubling 7 years after his first film, Tom Ford uses this theme of image to tackle ideas of how having all the money and success cannot fill the innate emptiness inside. Not a particularly ground-breaking revelation but it is in the way he conveys it that works so well. There is a lot more under the trunk besides image too.
Opening with a quite frankly beguiling and disturbing montage of, to put it delicately, overweight women naked and gyrating to the haunting noir sounds of composer Abel Korzeniowski (responsible for the underrated Gothic and soulful Penny Dreadful score). It is a transfixing moment, a way of using image to question our notion of beauty being skin deep, but also a glimpse into the art created by Amy Adams’s Susan. Evident from the off that she is suffering from a feeling of isolation, emptiness and artistic stagnation. Exemplified by her beautiful house, her gorgeous clothes and her handsome (but unfaithful) husband. Just one minor way Ford showcases that surface image betrays the real truth. It is all fabulously constructed and expertly acted, especially Adams (more on that later). But when the proof copy of her ex-husbands new book arrives bearing the forward ‘For Susan’ that things take an unexpected turn.
As Susan begins to read we are cast headfirst into the very story she is reading. Gyllenhaal takes centre stage as Edward, travelling with his wife, played by an intentionally Amy Adams lookalike in Isla Fisher, and their daughter. They journey across a bleak endless desert road and subsequently find themselves being chased in the dark by a menacing car. It is a scene of palpable tension, with the dread reaching fever pitch as the cars collide pushing the family into the sights of the monstrous Ray. Played by a fantastically twisted Aaron Taylor-Johnston. Usually playing things in a dull monotone, especially in the recent Godzilla reboot, here he is captivating and terrifying. A roadside scene builds and builds until the inevitable shocking kidnap of his wife and child. Ford expertly cuts this with Adams’s reaction at key moments, suitably raising our own shock at the events occurring.
It’s no surprise to say that events do not go well for Gyllenhaal’s family and Ford shoots these moments with firm clear focused clarity, with no call for sentimentality or over the top emotional wroughtness. We then find ourselves introduced to Michael Shannon’s sheriff. Always a hugely welcome presence, his laconic drawl and fierce intensity are immensely enthralling. His attempts to find justice in this bleak, unforgiving landscape are honourable and take on an extra layer of sadness with a late film revelation.
Gyllenhaal is quietly effective in this story within a story, boiling over into unsuppressed rage as the tale unfolds, but he also has a dual role as Susan’s real world ex, Tony. The film cuts to their first encounters and becomes a third film. That’s right you get three films for the price of one here. This one is full of warm colours and almost Richard Curtis-esque optimism as we see them fall in love despite the protestations of Susan’s mother, played by a venomous Laura Linney (one of many one scene cameos in the film, Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough also feature). Spitting out that Susan will wind up leaving him as he is too boring for her, and obviously being exactly what happens. But not before she does something unforgivable to him. As this moment comes the three stories intertwine in a breathtaking fashion, and the seemingly unrelated story within a story becoming powerfully reflective of the main themes.
Ford should absolutely be championed for this, he also adapted this from a 1993 novel titled Tony & Susan, but praise must be heaped on many of the players. The actors are uniformly excellent. Adams brings subtlety and complexity in what is a very difficult role, with this and Arrival 2016 is the year of Adams. The aforementioned 3 key men are superb and the random bit players add colour. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is terrific. He gives the three stories a unique feel, from the mirrored textures of Susan’s art world, to the starkly beautiful desolate wastelands of the revenge tale, and the natural feel of the courtship story. As mentioned though the editing is truly fantastic. Splicing together in unexpected moments and via cross cutting over things as innocuous as a fireplace. It helps to give the whole film a singular distinctive vibe, and one that will help the film to lodge in your brain matter days afterward.
Come the final devastating moments, where the themes of image, regret and consumerism align around a final act of revenge, the film carries an immense power. There may be flaws in the tale; the themes can get a little clunkingly obvious at times and the script isn’t always subtle, but it’s refreshing to see something so uncompromisingly committed to its vision. It catapults Tom Ford into the upper echelons of moviemaking and makes me pray that it doesn’t take another 7 years for him to capture some more delectable images.
Verdict: Artfully composed, wonderfully acted, and entirely gripping. Nocturnal Animals is the work of a true movie voice, and leaves you feeling shattered, shaken and wholly willing to experience it all again. I adored it!