MOVIE REVIEW: Nocturnal Animals



Every filmmaker develops their “eye” from a different creative wellspring.  Alfred Hitchcock started as an advertising designer and creative writer for a telegraph company.  Steven Spielberg used his family’s 8mm camera to earn his photography merit badge for the Boy Scouts.  For “Nocturnal Animals” filmmaker Tom Ford, his legend stems from his storied success as a fashion designer.  

The leap for every filmmaker is translating their creative eye to the cinematic medium.  Hitchcock’s feverish writing fed his mise-en-scene and attention to detail.  Spielberg grew his outdoor sense of adventure to the highest possibilities and beyond.  With an eye for the cultured human form and colorful finery, Tom Ford saturates every edge of his films with ornate style.  The man is never boring and neither is one iota of “Nocturnal Animals,” Ford’s second feature film and a cage-rattling psychological thriller.

Turning on the proverbial stage lights, Ford’s decisive flair hits loud and clear immediately.  An unforgettable slow-motion opening credits smashes the screen with glittered confetti, satirical patriotism, a musical score of seductive strings, and the gyrating and completely nude female form.  Unexpected and completely forthright, it is the first shot fired in a calculated barrage that is heavily layered in symbolic external and internal darkness that defies and questions definitions of beauty, morality, and material success.

Well-to-do Los Angelean Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is an art gallery proprietor bound to a loveless cougar marriage with Hutton (Armie Hammer), the epitome of tall-dark-and-handsome and marrying-for-money.  Both her and her husband’s business ventures are struggling and the couple is embarrassed by their diminished wealth when surrounded by their high society peers.  During a weekend where Hutton is away in New York, a surprise is delivered to Susan in the form of a package from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal).  Inside is a letter presenting a manuscript of his first book, entitled “Nocturnal Animals,” which he dedicated in her name.

Susan begins to read the manuscript and her envisionment of the novel’s happenings is played out on screen as a trepidatious story-within-a-story.  Borrowing from the notion that authors write about themselves in their work, Susan’s psyche casts Edward himself (a dual role for Gyllenhaal) as the main character, a husband and father named Tony Hastings.  He is driving across across the tumbleweeds of West Texas at night with his lovely wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber).  Tony encounters and mistakenly provokes a trio of ruffian rednecks, led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).  The men accost them for sick fun and eventually kidnap Tony’s wife and daughter.  Frantic and defeated, the only man available to help Tony is the gruff local lawman Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).

Alone with her already-agitated thoughts and mild insomnia, the disturbing and horrifying events of the novel flood Susan’s mind with every reading and send it racing even when she puts the book down.  Unsettled and reflective, Susan’s literary visualizations merge with reminiscences of her courtship with Edward, her hometown sweetheart and first crush, and its eventual failure, a trajectory prognosticated by her domineering mother Anne (Laura Linney).  Three wholly different and engaging story fronts ratchet up the intrigue and tension towards a collision of parallel climaxes.

This is a film where the performers had to relish the opportunities to answer dares and take chances.  Darkening the eye makeup, shading her lips, and shifting her gaze, the wholesome Amy Adams many people count on gives way to a tortured soul, one even more pained than “Arrival” earlier this month.  Jake Gyllenhaal is fully invested with his emotions and swings a punishing pendulum between the sensitive artist and the desperate man pushed to the brink.  Michael Shannon chews and spits every drawled line with his signature reserved intensity in a white-hatted performance even better than Jeff Bridges’s similar turn in “Hell or High Water.”  Laura Linney may only get one scene, but, like Jane Fonda last year in “Youth,” she scorches the earth for ten minutes leaves an indelible impact.  Last but not least, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is better than he has ever been wearing the skin of a disgusting and cackling Max Cady-like villain.

With those stinging performances, the potency of “Nocturnal Animals” and its neo-noir landscape only becomes stronger.  Tom Ford’s creative leadership means the stiff bite of the content is chased by his intoxicating elixir of atmosphere and elegance in every scene.  Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and composer Abel Korzeniowski spike the drink with bracing visuals and aural flourishes that are Oscar-worthy in both departments.  Unlike the trashier “Fifty Shades of Grey” fare that this film will be unfairly stacked with, “Nocturnal Animals” is deeper in metaphor and far more intelligent in its mystery.  Its complete unpredictability is pervasive and utterly irresistible.

LESSON #1: HOW A READER VISUALIZES A BOOK-- Proponents of written prose have long extolled the sublime experience of a reader creating their own imagery out of what they read.  Each reader is a casting director for the dreamy production on stage in their mind, silently personalizing the look of the characters and the voices of internal monologue.  As few movies have done better, “Nocturnal Animals” projects one reader’s visions playing out on screen.

LESSON #2: HOW PEOPLE MOVE ON AFTER A DISSOLVED RELATIONSHIP-- Hundreds of break-up songs have inspired jilted former partners to seek any number of coping avenues, from revenge and healing to freedom and depression.  As for Susan and Edward, each took a decidedly different path after their divorce.  Susan’s selfishness chose materialistic success and status.  Edward was the broken victim who channeled his pain into the creative energy to write with devastating results.

LESSON #3: BEING TRAPPED IN AN UNINTENDED LIFE-- Page after page, Susan cannot help reading Edward’s manuscript and admit her own faults in inspiring such a symbolically agonizing tragedy.  When remembering younger and better days, Susan sees that she tossed aside romanticism and her liberal values to become the spitting image of her despised mother, something she promised to Edward and herself would never happen.  She had love, ruined it, and is now locked into unfulfillment and unhappiness.