Director Tom Ford
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Released 4th November 2016
The story within a story, the film within a film. Popular Hollywood conceits, and ones that you’d expect a director like Tom Ford to avoid. But, for his first film since A Single Man, he’s grappled with one of them and taken a left field approach. One that doesn’t entirely pay off.
Half of Nocturnal Animals is the story of glamorous, successful gallery curator, Susan (Amy Adams). From the outside, her life is perfect: a high paid job, a wardrobe full of designer clothes, a handsome husband, an architect designed house, the lot. But she doesn’t have it all and she knows it. Because she’s fallen out of love with her profession, describing her latest – and highly-praised – exhibition as “junk” and her marriage isn’t all it should be either. Out of the blue comes a parcel and the omens aren’t good: she cuts her finger on its wrapping and that trickle of blood is just the beginning. Inside is the manuscript of a thriller called “Nocturnal Animals”, written by her ex-husband and dedicated to her.
And it’s the start of the second half, the story of a violent and tragic incident – wrong place, wrong time. Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal, who also plays Susan’s ex-husband, Edward), his wife and daughter are driving through the Texas night when they run into an unpleasant gang, led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The story is gritty, violent and distressing – at times genuinely frightening and unsettling – and it’s at this point that the two stories start to interweave. The narrative from the book takes Tony on a journey, in the company of granite faced local cop Bobby (Michael Shannon), to track down the gang after his wife and daughter are kidnapped.
Ford draws sharp visual contrasts between the unforgiving, sweaty Texan bush and Susan’s life of luxury, while the film switches back and forth from its two stories, often with overlapping images which are similar to each other or hark back to earlier scenes. It gives the visuals and the storyline some cohesion. And, at the same time, there’s the similarities between Tony and Edward, again using echoes from other contexts – Ray tells Tony he’s weak, exactly how Susan’s own mother described Edward during their courtship.
But why, after 19 years, does Edward send her the manuscript? Is he trying to tell her something? Or is it a reproach for the time when she suggested, in his earlier writing days, that he shouldn’t write about himself so much? After all, he and Tony are played by the same actor and there are distinct parallels between the two men as people. Is it simply revenge for the reason why their marriage broke down, something that Susan herself describes as “unforgiveable”? The question is never fully answered, either by the director or the audience, and that’s one of the film’s frustrations.
There are some powerful performances to enjoy, although you need to look among the supporting cast for the best. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is almost unrecognisable under his shaggy hair and beard, looking at the world with cold contempt. And it’s easily the best thing he’s ever done. But the runaway performance comes from Michael Shannon as the cop with nothing, but nothing, to lose. He has the only attempts at humour in the film, they are few and as black as night. Nocturnal, even.
Nocturnal Animals fascinates its audience, keeping a steady grip for the duration. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a satisfying film. It’s unsettling, at times baffling and falls short when it comes to providing any genuine insights into its themes of guilt, revenge and regret. It’s not quite more style than substance, but it comes perilously close at times. To coin a phrase from another time and another context, “a terrible beauty is born.”
Nocturnal Animals is released on Friday, 4th November and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 3rd November.