Nocturnal Animals (2016) (Review)

In a world in which solitude and loneliness is considered a negative, Nocturnal Animals - the second film from designer-turned-director Tom Ford - also ponders the effect such isolation can have on an individual, while never labelling it a bad thing as such. Almost every single character is arguably content with their loneliness, up to a point, and it's the careful consideration of this theme and how far their loneliness can be pushed, as well as a plethora of other themes hidden inside such  a stylish picture - that allows Ford's second film to flourish. It is a lavish example of how stories within stories can be successfully handled with detail and clarity, while never jeopardising the characters or the beauty of the film. In this dark psychological thriller, many of the elements fall into place and create a startling piece of film-making.

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner, is haunted by a novel written by her ex-husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) and dedicated to her. The violent thriller, taking the name of Nocturnal Animals (a name he once gave to her) causes her to ponder her new life, their past relationship and what she has become. It's a dark and vicious story that plays over multiple, compelling narratives - past, present and imaginary but parable -  that occasionally cross and never become convoluted, managing to stabilise the stories as they play out but pulling away just as the tension is about to hit fever pitch. It keeps audiences sitting firmly on the edge of their seats, nails firmly bitten and hearts and minds racing.

Nocturnal Animals features some of the best film editing of the year, perfectly supported by the three-story structure that interweaves constantly and engagingly. While Susan's present is most certainly the central core and base of the story, her past and her imagination fuel the narratives tbat infuse into the main story seamlessly, as if they are echoing around her mind. This exploration of the psychology of the situation is superbly well-realised, particularly in one sequence in which a dying man'a heartbeat reverberates between the two settings and stories, cutting in impeccably and disconcerting audiences as it comes to the final beat. All of this is greatly brought to life by Tom Ford's distinctive visual flair, crafting an icy sophistication and palpable atmosphere that acts as a masterclass in balancing style and substance. He truly has an eye for detail and every aesthetic choice (whether you agree with them or not, as one will discuss later) is purposeful and brash, with an approach to grandeur that gives the film both a coldness and an emotional heartbeat. Ford also takes on the screenplay, adapted from its source material, and that 1 hour and 57 minute runtime absolutely flies by, excellently paced with a building momentum and intensity from the first few minutes until the last.

Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson make up the solid primary cast, all of who carry the weight their parts demand of them and add to the blistering tension and atmosphere crafted for the film. Adams is as incredible as ever, offering a controlled and collected performance of a character tormented and screaming under the incredibly polished surface. One character speaks of the 'sadness in her eyes', a beautiful subtlety in Adams' portrayal that employs her as the film's emotional gravitas of the film, while, on occasions, feeling a little resentment towards her. Gyllenhaal - balancing two characters throughout the film - plays Tony in the story-within-a-story, a man devestated by the guilt of his inability to act during a tragedy. As an examination of emasculation, Gyllenhaal portrays the damaged character with a deep insight into his struggles and it is his conviction as the character that allows us to care for him. His chemistry with Michael Shannon's western-style detectives superb and the lengths they go to in avenging the criminals is a soaring success mainly because of its consideration of loneliness and solitude, a consistent theme. Aaron Taylor-Johnson creates a repulsive and slimy character that is seemingly designed to oppose everything of Gyllenhaal's, with excellent characterisation to feed into his antagonists actions. No weak link exists in the cast and each and everyone of the four leads absolutely shine.

Nocturnal Animals certainly isn't shy and retiring in its display of nudity, particularly the cringing opening montage of flab and sag flying everywhere. It's deeply disturbing, in all honest, and perhaps pushes things a little bit too far. It's a scorching moment of the film and not at all for the correct reasons. While arguably searching for another criticism indeed, it's occasionally frustrating that the film's lapses into becoming a little monotonous in tone - we're searching for something a little more out there in terms of the tone, which we don't really get. It's instantly clear that this film is a serious depiction of life and art, but we occasionally need something a little more.

Nocturnal Animals is a very strong adult thriller defined by its beauty and direction by Tom Ford, its stirring themes and intricacy and stellar performances by a determined cast. It's disconcerting (usually, but not always, for the right reasons) and carries an intense atmosphere of icy sophistication that is both beautiful and brutal in the same breath. It's a cinematic art form that is absorbing and compelling and a strong contender for the year-end top 10.


Summary: Nocturnal Animals is a cinematic art form defined by its icy sophistication and absorbing atmosphere, with an intricate narrative brought to life by a convincing cast and a brilliant and focused direction.

Highlight: Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal's brilliant performances and the great chemistry crafted by the pair, despite rarely being in the same room.