nocturnal animals review
© Universal Pictures

Nocturnal Animals

2016
Dir: Tom Ford 

A Night’s Tale

For the second night in a row I find myself watching Amy Adams front a drama with something profound to reflect on the human condition. Nocturnal Animals could not be a more different beast to the galaxy-class first contact psy-fi Arrival (2016). More domestic, more mundane, yes, but its message is equally incisive. With time, it’s a more hard-hitting one. Aimed squarely on a more personal level, it certainly has greater potential to disturb.

Remarkably this is the first film Tom Ford has made since A Single Man (2009) won countless plaudits seven years ago. Colin Firth excelled in a refined, austere turn as a sartorial gent struggling to cope with the death of his boyfriend. Adams’ character might be of equal reserve here, but the set-up is far more outlandish.

A most arresting title sequence cannot fail to seize your attention. Adams plays Susan, New York art dealer. A full-bodied, full-frontal performance from one of her exhibitions is startling enough to grab you by the burlesques, and a sinister hint of oncoming darkness. Afterwards, we go home with Adams and her statuesque, vacuous partner (Armie Hammer), where we find ourselves the reluctant gooseberry in a corporately cold relationship. Susan receives a manuscript in the post, her assistant naturally saving her the trouble of actually having to read the accompanying letter. An ex-boyfriend has completed his debut novel and, intriguingly, sent her the very first copy. She’s stopped in her tracks on page one by his written dedication. ‘For Susan’

As she begins to read, we cross over into the world of the novel, witnessing its events in tandem with her. Susan envisions her ex as the lead character himself. So Jake Gyllenhaal plays both the boyfriend of her reminiscence, and the protagonist in the fiction he’s now written. His character is travelling by car at night with his wife and daughter, trying to get back to civilisation across a pitch black, deserted desert freeway. When three boozed-up yokels run them off the road for sport, lightly menacing harassment soon escalates to a shocking degree. Reading on, she’s transfixed by the tragedy unfolding before her. She confronts buried memories of her lost love, the breakdown of their relationship, and the part played by her disapproving mother (in a cracking supercilious turn from Laura Linney). We, the viewers, drift in and out of Susan ingesting the story in horror, her strained communication with her absent husband, flashbacks to her young sweetheart’s literary dreams, and the ever-worsening predicament of his book’s tragic victim.

Adams’s precise performance nails both the flush contentment of youth and the numb guardedness of mature experience. Gyllenhaal’s portrayal is similarly wide-ranging, as both the hopeful literary student and the doomed lead of his unsettlingly gravid tale. Andrea Riseborough and Michael Sheen contribute little more than cameos. Aaron Taylor Johnson, chief brute responsible for the heinous crimes of the book, doesn’t quite epitomise the rough, nihilistic threat of the outback hick. But Michael Shannon’s grizzled Sherriff is terrific. As ever, Shannon is unfailingly engaging. And when a lost-all-hope, chain-smoking, phlegm-spewing maverick cop is the warmest presence, you know you’re in especially chilly territory. Despite the blistering heat of his dusty domain.

There has been talk of Nocturnal Animals confusing audiences, and it is certainly disorientating while its layers unfold, but this is calculatingly executed. With time to slot it all back into place, its message is crystal clear, its impact boosted by forcing you to reconstruct it. This is a painful illustration of the ramifications of not following your heart. Of the flapping of the wings of the butterfly effect and the damage becoming undoable. It’s a cruel-to-be-kind warning of an inconvenient truth, with benevolent purpose. But in order to hit home, it’s a pretty discomfiting and unnerving journey. Digest, comprehend.

And take heed.

★ ★ ★ ½

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