Film Review: ‘Nocturnal Animals’

It should be enough of a recommendation to say that before I saw the premiere of the film Nocturnal Animals at Backlot Studios, I’d worked a nine-hour shift and been up since 5am, yet I couldn’t have dozed off if I’d tried.

Directed by Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals is a sleek genre picture fitted inside a meditative character drama. A fashion designer turned passionate director, Ford refuses to let his audience’s gaze drift away from the screen. Every shot is captivating, whether it be a scenic shot of the California desert, an intimate close-up of Amy Adams reading a book, or the opening sequence in which comically overweight burlesque dancers perform for an art exhibition.

After the mesmerising opener, the plot centres on Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), having just sleepwalked her way through said art exhibition she curated. Her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer, who, as far as I’m concerned, is an ideal choice to play a live-action Ken doll) has missed the art show and is flying to New York for a mysterious business deal, despite Susan suggesting they spend the weekend at the beach. Miffed, Susan settles down with the manuscript of a novel written by her first husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), and dedicated to her. Bringing the manuscript’s sections to life, the film then alternates between Susan’s narrative, the plot of Tony’s novel ‘Nocturnal Animals’, and flashbacks that elucidate Susan and Tony’s ill-fated marriage.

As the film plays out, fiction begins to blur with reality. In his adapted screenplay from Austin Wright’s novel, Tony and Susan, Ford seems to be saying something about the way a truly engrossing piece of fiction bleeds out into your life: Susan drops the manuscript when the story overwhelms her, she sees the book’s villain on the screen of a co-worker’s smartphone, and in one scene towards the end, Susan and Edward (the protagonist of the novel, also played by Gyllenhaal) breathe together—one dying in the desert, the other in the bathtub, finally waking up from her dreary life.

Both Gyllenhaal and Adams are simply the best they’ve ever been. Gyllenhaal’s Edward is a father and husband driven to revenge after Ray (an almost unrecognisable Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his goons run them off the road in their car. Edward is by no means a swashbuckling hero and Gyllenhaal embraces his character’s weaknesses, displaying an impressive range of emotional states throughout the story. Amy Adams achieves something remarkable in the way that she invites the viewer to experience things from her point of view. Distant and unwilling to make changes in her life, she’s not a particularly likeable character, yet Adams encourages the audience to empathise with her.

Equal parts thrilling and emotionally complex, Tom Ford’s second film after 2009’s A Single Man is one of the year’s best. Ford is not only a director to watch, he’s one whose films are too engrossing to avoid.

– Tom
Tom Bensley is a freelance writer in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley.

Nocturnal Animals will be officially released in cinemas November 10.

Disclosure: The Plus Ones were invited guests of Universal Pictures.
Image credit: Universal Pictures.