Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Michael Sheen and Laura Linney.
Directed by Tom Ford.
I didn’t actually mean to watch this one! I thought I was settling in to watch Amy Adams in Arrival, the one with the aliens visiting and she’s tasked with translating or something. Anyway, I decided to stick with Nocturnal Animals instead and I’m so glad I did. It was superb.
The story follows Susan (Adams), an elegant, beautiful woman managing her quirky, successful art gallery. She is, however, emotionally unfilled and when she’s sent a manuscript by her ex-husband (Gyllenhaal) about a tale of vengeance in the Texas desert, she’s forced to reminisce on her former life and confront the mistakes she’s made.
Aesthetically, it’s got Tom Ford written all over it. It’s stylish, modern and like any fashion designer would hope for, the audience will enjoy the textures and visuals just as much as the narrative. The man is an artist, that’s for sure. I vaguely recall hearing Ford was dabbling in filmmaking, but it always makes me a little nervous when established names venture out of their industry to pursue other paths. It doesn’t always work – I can think of a few celebrities/models/musicians who have regrettably tried their hand at acting. Ford however, breaks the mould. He’s used his artistic vision and created a masterpiece.
The film opens with Susan’s latest exhibit — a celebration of obese, wobbling, naked women. For me it was quite grotesque, and it isn’t quite clear until later on in the film as to why we are witnessing it. If you aren’t one for metaphors and hidden meanings, it will remain just wobbly obese females! We come to realise the art in fact mirrors life for Susan, whose outwardly beautiful existence is actually rather ugly, comprising of a joyless marriage to a cheating husband, a job she no longer likes and self-fabricated, soul-crushing guilt, brought on by a secret abortion. The film switches back and fourth between Susan’s current life, her past, and the manuscript she is reading. It sounds complicated, but it was really easy to follow. It’s very evident she was drawing parallels from the novel throughout the film, and it was really enjoyable to watch. Despite Gyllenhaal playing her ex-husband Edward from the past, he also plays the character from the acted-out manuscript alongside the great Michael Shannon. When filmmakers decide to break up the chronological order of a film, it’s always a risky move. If not careful, it can prove really disorientating and confusing for the audience, which results in a lack of attention and interest. Luckily, Ford has mastered it here.
The cast is impressive and there are delightfully mischievous single-scene turns from Laura Linney and Michael Sheen, and a not so big part from Isla Fisher. At first it’s a little strange – these well known actors don’t need small parts like this anymore. True to an extent, but this film is different. It offers so much more depth by having small features from big names. It’s nice to see actors interested in a role because of the role – not just how much fame and accolade it will bring them. It’s refreshing to see them wanting to share their creativity in this way, without wanting to take the limelight at centre stage.
Gyllenhaal’s career has seen him really prove himself, and I always feel he goes to extreme lengths to really become his character. This film is no different, with him making all the right changes and adaptations, and encapsulating every mannerism and trait to a tee. Besides this performance, others worth mentioning for me would be Prisoners, Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain and Nightcrawler.
I’m going to talk about Michael Shannon, because well I just want to! In this film, he plays the officer investigating the crime in the acted-out manuscript. He is one of my absolute favourites, despite rarely playing a leading role. Instead, he sticks with supporting (but important) characters and always goes to surprising lengths on every performance. I feel like scriptwriters might write with him in mind before they consider leads. Films for me always get much more interesting once Shannon is introduced. An example of this has to be Revolutionary Road. You would think the unimaginable pressure of starring in the first film Leo and Kate have worked on together since Titanic would be enough to finish you, but Shannon bounces off them both with such grace and talent. Some people just have it and he is undoubtedly one of them.
Some might find the film heartless or cold, but that misses the point. I learnt this the hard way being a typical romantic. Despite everything, I was willing Edward to show at the end, but it would have been wrong for him to do so. It would have made the whole narrative redundant. Strong storytelling demands empathy not sympathy and, like Susan, we’ve all made bad choices. Her lonely fate probably won’t bring a tear to your eye, but it will satisfy you to know she has probably learnt something from the experience. The joint partnership between Ford and expert cinematographer Seamus McGarvey is beautiful, and the consistency and commitment to making sure every aspect of filmmaking compliments one another is faultless.
It’s a great little find, I really recommend. Four stars!