Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford’s mesmerising second feature after the acclaimed A Single Man is a visually stunning and disturbingly gripping examination of the connection between reality and constructed worlds.

The Revenger's Tragedy

by Alexa Dalby

Nocturnal Animals

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Nocturnal Animals opens with unsettling images of obese naked women, but with majorette accessories, dancing. It’s the opening of an exhibition for gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams, Arrival), who lives in a sterile, grey and glass box-like house in the rarefied atmosphere of Los Angeles’ art world. Though she seems to have everything, she is unhappy at what her life has become.

When her possibly unfaithful husband (Armie Hammer, Free Fire) is away at the weekend, she receives an unsolicited delivery of the manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal, Night Crawler), whom she has not heard from for almost 20 years. It’s clearly directed at her because its title is a play on his nickname for her – she’s an insomniac – and it is dedicated to her. As she reads it, it has a devastating effect. In her imagination, what she’s reading becomes a film within a film, a dark and violent thriller set in the badlands of West Texas, where they both come from. Ford smoothly interweaves these two threads. Then, as the trauma of reading the manuscript triggers flashbacks, Ford adds the third strand of flashes from Edward and Susan’s early marriage, and we see how she crushed his confidence as a writer and how they broke up.

As she reads, Susan realises the events of the novel symbolise elements of her failed relationship with Edward. In the manuscript, Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) and his wife (Isla Fisher, with a close resemblance to Adams) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) are subjected to a horrific, random attack as they drive along a deserted highway at night by a vicious group of Texas rednecks led by feral psychopath Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nowhere Boy). What happens to the women, Susan realises, is Edward’s revenge for the way in which she broke up their marriage.

Each story thread – the present day and the novel – is equally riveting and Ford slides back and forth between them. Cinematography by Seamus McGarvey distinguishes them with bleached-out, aridly white Los Angeles and saturated, almost B-movie coloured Texas, with wide landscapes of scrub and jigsaw-like cloud formations.

Adams’ performance is superbly nuanced as she reacts to the unfolding horror of the story and Gyllenhaal in the two roles is anguished, powerless and then vengeful. Laura Linney (Sully), as Susan’s coiffed and prejudiced Texas mother, steals a one-scene appearance and lugubrious Lieutenant Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road), who investigates the incident in the novel, gives a whole new spin to the one-last-case trope. British actors Andrea Riseborough and Michael Sheen have cameos as pretentious art-world types, and Zawe Ashton (Dreams of a Life) appears briefly as Susan’s gallery assistant.

Tom Ford’s screenplay of psychological twists and turns is based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, with tension ramped up by Abel Korzeniowski’s music. It comes with the visual flair of a top designer and seals his place as also a hugely talented filmmaker. It’s a must-see.

Nocturnal Animals premiered in the UK at the 60th BFI London Film Festival 2016 and is released on 4 November 2016 in the UK.

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