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USA 2016
Directed by
Tom Ford
117 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4.5 stars

Nocturnal Animals

Synopsis: Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is an art gallery owner whose handsome second husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) is too often away from home, struggling to maintain his business career. When Susan receives a package from her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) she opens it to discover the unpublished manuscript to a novel; Nocturnal Animals (a reference to Edward’s pet name for insomniac Susan). As she reads the book alone in her house, she is shocked by the story of Tony Hastings (also Jake Gyllenhaal), his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher), and daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), whose lives are changed by a terrifying incident on a lonely desert road at night. The more she reads, the more she finds that the story closely resonates with her relationship with Edward and she quickly becomes convinced that his book is both a symbolic revenge tale and a veiled threat.

From its bizarre and quite confronting opening images of scantily clad, obese women gyrating on platforms at Susan’s gallery opening to its perfectly judged final scene, Tom Ford’s follow-up to A Single Man (2009) is a masterful piece of filmmaking. I haven’t read Austin Wright’s 1993 novel, ‘Tony and Susan’, so it’s hard to say how much the film owes to it and how much it owes to Ford’s adaptation but, either way, it’s a complex and compelling story – three stories, in fact: Susan’s present day relationship with Hutton, the flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s earlier relationship, and the gripping story of Tony and Laura that unfolds from Edward’s novel. Ford balances these three perspectives with a deft hand and the transitions between each are beautifully realised in sharp and clever editing triggered by matching imagery and sounds.

Adams is terrific in her role as the woman who seemingly has everything and yet is plagued by doubts, regrets and dissatisfaction. Her performance is equalled by Gyllenhaal as both the young, idealistic aspiring writer and the fictionalised, timid family man who is pushed to the extreme of his moral boundaries.  The excellent cast also includes strong cameos from Michael Sheen and Jenna Malone along with standout performances by Laura Linney as Anne, Susan’s snobbish, conservative mother, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a sociopathic killer and the ever reliable Michael Shannon as Bobby Andes the unconventional,bronchial cop who joins forces with Tony as the plot of Edward’s book develops.

The production design by Shane Valentino and art direction by Christopher Brown along with excellent cinematography by Seamus McGarvey combine to give us both the slick, hollow glamour of Susan and Hutton’s luxurious, wealthy L.A. life and the dusty, down-and-out, windswept desert settings of Edward’s book but, production and performances aside, it’s the story here that really draws you in. Yes, each strand of the film’s narrative is compelling on its own but together they provide a riveting examination of regret, revenge and the consequences of poor judgement and love gone wrong.  There are no real heroes in this film. Everyone’s a victim in one way or another and each character is riddled with some kind of guilt, discontent or the burden of a shameful secret.

Perhaps Ford’s real skill in this remarkable film is that from a roster of largely unlikeable characters (usually the death knell for a story) he manages to elicit our deep engagement, a sincere interest and, in most cases, unexpected feelings of sympathy. There are some nasty little games being played here but far from being repelled, we are drawn to them in the same fatal way that moths are drawn to flames. It’s a pretty neat trick by an increasingly fine filmmaker.




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