Amy Adams dons a pair of Tom Ford’s visionary glasses where, while reading a manuscript sent by her ex-husband, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, she brings his fictional world into the reality of Nocturnal Animals.
Obese, naked, middle-aged women with tassels and sparklers gyrating in slow-motion adorn the sprawling title sequence of Ford’s second self-written adaption and direction since 2009’s A Single Man. It sets a precedent for the knowing stylised aesthetic of the film. With Amy Adams as an art gallery owner, indulgent prolonged vistas of clouds portraying ‘pathetic fallacy’ and meticulously detailed settings the whole work is a gorgeous example of art within art.
There are two worlds blending here; Susan Morrow (Adams) is struggling in her high-powered marriage, living in expensive monochrome both at her gallery and at home, having difficulty connecting with her husband. An ominous paper-cut received while unwrapping the manuscript her ex-husband Edward Sheffield sent to her work, is a sanguine splash of colour and one of many heavy portents of the thrills to follow. When, as if auditioning for Bond, Adams sweeps home in her sleek, expensive black car into a modern complex of a building, she opens the pages of the novel, dedicated ‘For Susan’ and a second interior film sparks into life.
Meet Tony Hastings, who is given the face of Gyllenhaal by Susan’s imagination. Ex-husband Edward had told Susan that writers always write about themselves, so she takes his cue. Tony is taking his wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber) on holiday in a harrowing sequence that takes place at the dead of night. While minding their own business they are harassed by a nuisance car on an otherwise solitary and out-of-network road, they are forced to stop and face them.
The two stories switch by mirroring circumstances that, through repetition, become annoyingly neat. Tony in the shower transitions into Susan showering. A gunshot in Tony’s world jolts Susan out of her semantic reverie as a bird thumps into a large immaculate windowpane in her house. As Tony seeks justice in the novel ‘Nocturnal Animals’, Susan’s horror within Nocturnal Animals forces her to reflect on the relationship with her ex-husband and what she did to him – which was actually just to leave and not believe in him – not quite as dramatic as the trailer intimates.
The duplex effect is gripping as the events of the text feed back into the growing interest in Susan’s slow breakdown. Gyllenhaal’s performance within the novel is of a terrified man, facing his own cowardice. He pulls off ‘normal dad’ and grows into a man bent on the vigilante justice that dying cop Bobby Andes (Shannon) offers to facilitate. Every time the story reaches a climax, we lose view of it as Susan must take a mental break. As Susan displays increasing anxiety she goes back over meeting her ex-husband, who in retrospect is the young, clean-shaven budding writer she will fall for. As the novel builds, we see their marriage collapse in a series of snapshots from the past.
The scenery has Ford’s touch too, the curator, black and white, art gallery frequenting Susan might be in his comfort zone. However, the middle-of-nowhere, sparsely populated, dirty, villainous environs in which we see Tony are as carefully sculpted and choreographed, even though this may not be Ford’s most familiar ground.
Cameos from Michael Sheen and Laura Linney are just the cherry on a beautiful cake. Sheen plays the gay husband of one of Susan’s friends. He leans over at a dinner party with gloriously campness and reminds her that they live in a surreal world and that she should embrace it. His shiny blue-blazered vivacity is a bright light in her surroundings. Linney crops up as Susan’s Texan grande dame of a mother, the materialistic woman she fears to become. Linney, with her wonderfully scaffolded blond hair, she drippingly betrays her age by delivering an utterly convincing warning despite her deliberately cartoonish character type.
The ending leaves much left to be resolved and not in a ‘Nocturnal Animals 2’ kind of way. It serves as a message to Susan and one you would imagine she’d act on. Tom Ford meets the anticipation merited by a seven year wait between cinematic projects. Let us hope he can maintain such an unblemished record. Gyllenhaal steals the film though, one of the best performances of the year… and in two so different roles.
Review by George Meixner