Director: Tom Ford
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Shannon, Armie Hammer, Isla Fisher
Plot: A wealthy, but lonely arts dealer (Adams) is sent the manuscript for her ex-husband’s (Gyllenhaal) latest novel that acts as a chilling revenge for their brutal break-up.
God, this film is beautiful. No matter what the central story throws the viewer, it is hard to deny that Tom Ford’s eye for both cinematography and art is something that movie audiences need. Whether he is throwing us off guard with a haunting image that zooms out to reveal it is little more than a portrait, acting as a red herring, or simply greeting the audience with a disturbingly visual parade of naked flesh in the opening sequence, you leave this movie thinking about the imagery. I have my own personal disdain for arthouse cinema, but with a story strong enough to support Ford’s vision, he has the space to add as many dream-like, thought-provoking shots as he wishes. Beautiful Texas deserts at night, before the horror of the story hits. Vast, rich mansions standing empty and lonely, despite the money invested into them. Nocturnal Animals is a very beautiful film. That is actually quite a handy thing, because Ford slips into his story, carefully, with the patience of someone testing bathwater he is not sure about. We are introduced to Amy Adams hollow arts dealer, trapped in a job she does not love, with a husband who probably doesn’t love her back. She drifts through her house, vacantly, cameos from Michael Shannon and Andrea Riseborough suggesting that off-screen she confesses some dark thoughts. Then, in the post, she receives a novel from her ex-husband, a man she broke up with a way that her aura suggests was more than a little cruel. She reads the novel, its disturbing content both shocking her and forcing her to re-evaluate her past.
And it is here Nocturnal Animals divulges into a film of two halves. One half shows us the story in the novel, Jake Gyllenhaal playing both the author in the real timeline and the lead character in the fictional one. The other half shows us Amy Adams and her reaction to the material. The scenes showing us what happens in the novel is, simply put, stellar film-making. Gyllenhaal takes his wife and daughter for a holiday to a remote part of Texas, when travelling along a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, they encounter a group of unsavoury individuals. Ford abandons the reality part of the movie for long periods at a time to solely focus on the scenes at play here. And it works very well, Ford’s patience-testing depiction of a family held hostage on the road a disturbing, nail-biting watch. It is the unknown that terrifies both the audience and the characters, as Aaron Taylor-Johnson flashes acting muscles unseen before, as the malicious stranger. He veers from suspiciously polite and helpful, to a creature from your worst nightmares, tormenting Gyllenhaal’s young daughter for the fun of it. This is where beats like the naked women dancing in the opening sequence is a clever piece of foreshadowing. It prepares the audience for the fact that the director has no limit with this film which opens up a dizzying array of possibilities for how this scene is going to play out. It makes the watch an excruciatingly painful one, but a movie that you will be unable to shake for quite some time afterwards. The novel half of the movie though is more than an arthouse movie delighting in making its audience squirm. The story unfolds after that incident into a brutal aftermath which sees Gyllenhaal’s character breaking from the strain of what he went through. It is a typically brilliant turn from Gyllenhaal, the kind of performance that is safely strong. After Nightcrawler, Prisoners and just about any film he has been in that wasn’t Prince of Persia, we know we are going to get a wonderful piece of performing from the actor. But the strength is also in the writing. Right from the start of this segment, we know that the novel is going to tie into Amy Adams’ story somewhere down the road and the fun is in trying to figure out what beats mean what to the real timeline, before the director shows his hand.
Which brings us to Amy Adams and her side of the film. And sadly, it is here where Nocturnal Animals loses its way. She should be the most important part of the story, the lead character whose actions have sparked off this disturbing piece of literature, which the movie suggests is some form of revenge. The film is not so much about the horrors of the Texas stand-off, but in how Adams reacts to what she is reading. And the film has plenty of cut backs of Adams spending sleepless nights, reminiscing about the life she had. This opens up into fractured flashbacks of her failing romance with the author in question. Visually it is all very good, but narratively, more time is needed. There is so long spent in charting the story of the father in Texas that Adams has to confine her performance into short bursts. There is no slow unravelling of her character, but a bullet-point list of scenes where she confides to her personal assistant, where she imagines horrors waiting around every corner (2016’s most unexpected jump scare?). As a result, we don’t really feel anything for this side of the story. When Ford’s twist does drop and we learn what her dark secret is, we are appropriately shocked, but I wouldn’t say moved. We register the implications of what she has done and we react in the way the director probably wants us to. But it feels like just another story beat, rather than a revelation that should open the film up dramatically for dissection. It makes the end, which is beautifully empty, slightly less hard-hitting.
Final Verdict: Beautifully stunning and held together by grand performances, but the main message is lost in the edit.