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In an age of cinematic redundancy, where studios swap settings and recycle stories in meat grinder-like fashion, it’s hard to be moved by the theater experience. There are few on the big stage that take risks anymore, leaving it mostly up to indie filmmakers to trail-blaze new ideas and style, though once in awhile something comes along in the mainstream that surprises. Nocturnal Animals draws from great influences and seeps with homage to masters of the past and yet feels remarkably fresh, a wholly original work that is spellbinding in presentation and performance, and yet will be unquestionably alienating for many.
Wealthy art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) is not doing so well. Her business is in decline, with exhibits that bring no spectators, and a husband named Hutton (Armie Hammer) who is detached, traveling, and clearly involved with another women. She keeps up appearances as best she can, elegantly dressed and attending the right social engagements, but there is a crumbling behind the eyes. One day, she receives a manuscript in the mail, written by her ex-husband of nearly twenty years, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who wishes for her feedback.
Reclining into her bed, alone as always, cast in the shadows of another empty night, she reads the story, dedicated to her, which we see played out cinematically. Tony (Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher), and their teen daughter India (Ellie Bamber) travel by car on an equally darkened road in West Texas when they suddenly find themselves entangled in a horrific encounter with a backwoods psychopath named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and a few of his croons. The confrontation leads Tony to seek help from Deputy Andes (Michael Shannon), a man on his own desperate path.
Meanwhile, back in real life, Susan’s real life continues to unravel as Hutton grows further distant and her gallery’s demise looms ever near. Escaping into the pages of her former husband’s violent and disturbing imagery find her reflecting on her own life, and as parallels between Edward’s book and Susan’s past draw closer, she comes to suspect the story is less about fiction but rather something far more personal.
Directed by Tom Ford, whose only other credit is the Academy Award-nominated A Single Man (2009), itself a deeply emotional character study drenched in atmosphere, Nocturnal Animals is an inciting film, one that will clearly divide its audience. Ford, adapting his screenplay from the book Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, looks to poke fires, starting with the opening credit sequence that features a series of obese nude women dancing in undulating slo-motion, replete with cheerleader paraphernalia. It’s not connected in any way to the film narratively, but does set a tone where we are compelled to watch, simply out of morbid curiosity. This is a film of dualities, with scenes from the book she reads echoing her reality, often in opposites. It might be frustrating to piece together, but for that it binds with a kind of delicious ache.
The film scaffolds it way to a bisection via flashbacks that run alongside the fictional story of Tony, and we steadily learn that Susan and Edward met young and married early, that he questions why she gave up a dream to be an artist and that she had no faith in him to be a writer and more. And she also hurt him in a despicable way. Ford manipulates with every frame, casting Susan in severity, her real life surrounded by sharp edges, all the women with angular hair and bold, aggressively-colored lips, while Tony wallows in dusty sepia tones, men with stringy hair and hollow eyes, all out among the tumbleweeds. These world connect in parable of course, and as secrets unfurl, a theme emerges, at one point literally written in big bold letters hanging on a wall in black ink dripping like fresh blood.
While the film may play with one’s patience and Ford indulges in style over substance a few too many times, it is absolutely saved by its performances. Adams is once again not afraid to expose herself with great vulnerability, and Gyllenhaal is tremendous. However, it is Shannon who deserves the highest acclaim. In a year in which he starred in no less than ten films, he does his best work yet, a caustic performance that is unnerving, his face a piece of stone, only his bottom lip making the slightest twitch as he speaks. It’s his finest work.
Nocturnal Animals is a chilling experience, a challenging film that trusts its audience in ways few films do. What we hold dear, the sacrifices we make, the mistakes we can’t undo and the consequences of such lead to a devastating last shot, easily the most Hitchcockian of the entire runtime, and one that will linger with many long after, made all the more memorable by Abel Korzeniowski‘s magnificent score. The film is divisive to be sure, but it is also innovative and unafraid. No matter one’s opinion, surely we need more of that.
Director: Tom Ford
Writers: Tom Ford (screenplay), Austin Wright (novel)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon