Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Review #1,376

Director:  Tom Ford
Cast:  Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney
Plot:  An art gallery owner is haunted by her ex-husband's novel, a violent thriller she interprets as a veiled threat and a symbolic revenge tale.

Genre:  Drama / Mystery / Thriller
Awards:  Won Grand Jury Prize (Venice).  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Supporting Actor
Runtime:  116min
Rating:  M18 for violence, menace, graphic nudity, and language.
Distributor:  United International Pictures

“When someone loves you, you have to be careful with it.”

It has been seven years since Tom Ford's debut feature, A Single Man (2009), which saw the famed fashion designer turning to cinema for artistic expression.  While largely critically-acclaimed, I felt his first stab at filmmaking was mixed—perhaps there was too much style and subtlety to the extent that it didn’t feel involving. 

In Ford’s sophomore feature, Nocturnal Animals, surely a marked improvement in my opinion, the film is a neat balance of both style and substance, with some tonal shifts that somehow blend into the big picture.  Awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, Nocturnal Animals is also a balance between mainstream accessibility, largely due to its strong A-list Hollywood cast headed by Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon, and a more artistic (I wouldn’t say arthouse) endeavour. 

The fact that Universal is handling international rights shows the studio’s great confidence in the film’s marketability.  However, Ford’s work will be a head-scratcher for casual moviegoers without any inclinations toward a more layered and carefully constructed film. 

The performances are superb, with Adams playing Susan, a married career woman (she is an art gallerist) whose ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) unexpectedly sends her a self-written novel, an intellectually piercing and emotionally devastating crime-fiction story (which could be his very own traumatic experience) that keeps her wide awake at night. 

By intercutting sequences of present day with flashbacks of their early romance, while at the same time, splicing them with sequences directly from the novel that could either function as Edward’s memory or fantasy, or perhaps Susan’s imagination, Ford gives us a textual and textured film that is rightly ambitious, engaging, and certainly meta in approach. 

The meta-textual connections transcend reality and fantasy.  For example, Isla Fisher, who plays Edward’s wife in his novel, bears physical resemblance to Adams.  Textured elements marked by shifts in genre expectations and visual styles create harsh, desolate environments (somewhat reminiscent of the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984) and No Country for Old Men (2007)) that bring about fear and paralysis for the characters.  This is in contrast to Susan’s world of rich, polished, and overtly sensual surroundings.  Whatever your thoughts about the film, one can’t deny that Ford is a stylish craftsman. 

Verdict:  Tom Ford is a stylish craftsman who delivers a textual and textured psychological thriller that is ambitious and engaging.


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