Entering and exiting with duel sequences of tremendous shock, Nocturnal Animals maintains an insatiable aura of provocation throughout its 118 minute duration. This dazzlingly lurid sophomore effort from fashion designer Tom Ford renders a complex web of deceit, crime and culture which addicts and infatuates.
Harnessing duel narrative strands, the film follows Susan Morrow (Amy Adams); a frosty art gallery owner straddling a cold and fractured marriage with husband Hutton (Armie Hammer), and dealing with an overwhelming sense of superficiality. She is somehow lost in the thick noise of her own creation, desperately attempting to navigate the bourgeois façade which fabricates her universe. However things take a deeply introspective and ultimately ugly turn when she receives a manuscript from her former beau Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). His novel – “Nocturnal Animals” – is a deliriously violent and repressive read; elegant in composition, yet thematically wretched. Quickly Susan becomes consumed by the story which she starts interpreting as a veiled threat and symbolic revenge tale.
Pairing the unfolding domestic drama of Susan’s life with the corrosive arcs of the neo-noir novel in her hands makes for deeply unsettling and rewarding viewing. Ford expertly forms parallel landscapes of horror as we navigate between the thick dirt and beaded sweat of the West Texan desert, to sterile, almost forensic workspaces and apartment buildings. Such environmental contrasts adhere to the psychological and emotional effect of the characters’ worlds, and indeed the spectators. Stories stay with us; they influence our thoughts, decisions and memories. We interpret – and often misinterpret – their messages and meanings, as if they were told just for us. Edward’s text hangs over Susan’s progressions like a thick smog; swelling in empty space, clouding her mind.
The craft of Nocturnal Animals is as meticulous and calculated as the progressive storytelling. Ford’s framing and composition throughout rivals the very best auteurs at work today. Using such clinical angles and acute mise-en-scène, he ensures absolutely everything within his lens has validity and weight. Some could see the overwhelming sense of visual arrangement here to be an exercise in style, but substance oozes from every asset, and the repetition of objects throughout contrasting settings enables the story strands to seamlessly bleed together. Seamus McGarvey’s sensual and intimate cinematography is gorgeously showcased, too. Quietly defusing the uncompromising brutality of Ford’s prose (his screenplay is somewhat adapted from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel “Tony and Susan”), the images are luxurious and feverish. A grotesque act or development is complimented by beautifully refined colour.
Unsurprisingly, the decadent banquet of performances are spellbinding. Adams and Michael Shannon – who serves as Detective Bobby Andes in the unfolding fictitious journey – in particular deliver towering work. The stoic, almost ghostly Susan is a dizzying creation; subtly carrying remorse and anguish whilst maintaining a stern exterior. Meanwhile Bobby provides a veneer of gothic humour as the chain-smoking and slurring law enforcement; eloquently piercing moments of gruelling sorrow and pain with wry laughs. The pair deserve many Academy votes for their efforts here.
Gyllenhaal is also fantastic, and thrives in duo parts as he also occupies Tony, the protagonist in his revenge story. He continues to showcase such dexterity as an actor, always lending a hand to the most complex and captivating roles. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is also equally transformative as Ray Marcus; the spit-and-sawdust nemesis at the heart of the manuscript. Many other famous faces make appearances throughout including Michael Sheen, Jena Malone, Laura Linney and Andrea Riseborough, whilst Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber channel deep-seeded memories for Susan as they convey Tony’s wife and daughter.
Tonally and thematically, Nocturnal Animals is wholly acidic. Harnessed by nihilism and aggression, it is one bruising watch. Extended sequences of suffering – be that physical or mental – leave their scars, but such brutality garners plentiful rewards. This is potent, challenging and sumptuous Americana; rich with contextual complexity and cinematic splendour. Ford doesn’t just tailor exquisite threads, he also tailors exquisite film, and with his “difficult second” delivers wrenching mastery.
Nocturnal Animals is out now in UK cinemas.