NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer. Directed by Tom Ford. 117 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong themes and nudity).
Prior to making his directorial debut with 2009 film ‘A Single Man’, designer Tom Ford was perhaps best known in Hollywood for providing Daniel Craig with his Bond suits. However, he revealed an enviable talent, crafting a handsomely shot and emotionally rich narrative about a gay man planning his suicide after the death of his partner. As Ford’s star, Colin Firth delivered a career best performance and narrowly missed an Oscar, and I still maintain that his success the following year for ‘The King’s Speech’ was somewhat of an apology from the Academy after they realised their error.
‘A Single Man’ proved that Ford can be great with actors, great with visuals and great with emotion. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ arrives seven years later, having scored the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival (the silver medal) and boasting a cast stacked to the bit parts with talent (Michael Sheen in a role that barely scores two-dozen words!). Bad news first: it’s not as good as Ford’s debut. The emotions are a little more stilted, and the visuals, though pretty, don’t cohere as tightly as in his last outing. The good news though: these are minor quibbles! ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is terrifically acted for the most part and quite thrilling, and Ford takes admirable narrative risks that reward his bravery.
Susan (Amy Adams) is a successful artist married to struggling businessman and adulterer Hutton (Armie Hammer). Despite his issues, they are fabulously wealthy and glamorous, living in a large modern home with plenty of help on hand, and attend dinner parties with her fashionable artworld friends. Susan is nonetheless unhappy– if the story feels cold here, it’s perhaps because we’re being lectured to about how beautiful, prosperous people have problems too. The script from Ford also saddles them with unnatural, forced dialogue: Susan’s friend Alessia (Andrea Riseborough) assures her that it’s okay to be gloomy despite her fortune, saying ‘it’s all relative’. The best thing in the opening minutes then is the seductive string-led score from Abel Korzeniowski. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ gets more engaging when Susan’s ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her the manuscript for his novel, which shares the its name with the film, and as she reads it over several insomniac nights, we watch its plot unspool with sinister parallels to their former life together.
The book portion of the film is the more engaging, and it thankfully enjoys most of the screen time once it kicks off. In Edward’s book, Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal backing up) is driving his wife Laura (Amy Adams lookalike Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) through West Texas late at night, when they have a ‘Deliverance’-lite run in with some local rednecks led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, generously mutton-chopped). It’s incredibly uneasy and Ray oozes unhinged menace, until the situation devolves into terrible violence. Without going into details, Tony is left hungry for revenge, and comes to the attention of Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), who is prepared to take Tony outside the strict scope of the law to bring the responsible parties to justice.
The film is based on the novel ‘Tony and Susan’ by Austin Wright, and Ford’s commitment to maintaining the structure of the source material has its pros and cons. The framing segment – Susan reads the manuscript – is sterile and joyless, awash in DP Seamus McGarvey’s blues and greys. The normally reliable Amy Adams is impenetrably cold; her character is hard to like, and her frozen performance does little to thaw her exterior. Although best described as a melodrama, the emotions cannot land when the people in it are so distant and stilted. There are flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s early days together, spanning their reconnection in New York to their eventual break up, and Adams at last comes alive in these scenes. The contrast between Susan the young, idealist artist and Susan the older, pragmatic gentry is stark, and her younger self allows Adams to express a greater range of feeling, from defiance against her disapproving parents to despair at her marriage’s decay. The pros are difficult to discuss without dipping into spoiler territory, but there are a few moments in which the parallels between Susan’s life and the novel create some real gut punches.
The framing narrative benefits from some spillover emotional power from Tony’s quest for vengeance. Switching here to a sun-beaten palette of yellows, the film quickly finds its feet and had me utterly gripped. Ford’s style of cool detachment serves to improve the thriller segment, the same way that Michael Mann’s did ‘Heat’, or Denis Villeneuve’s did ‘Prisoners’ – the impassiveness gives the tension and suspense and tragedy something to take root in, and it creates an excess that flows over to Susan’s story. Jake Gyllenhaal gives us a heartbroken everyman, burdened by the feeling that he should have put up more of a fight against his family’s attackers – the way his voice cracks when confronting the crooks delivers more feeling than Adams affords to Susan’s entire present day arc. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is believably crazy, and his transparent posturing about how nothing will be done to harm Tony and his kin throbs with menace. The real standout though, is Michael Shannon, who is frankly terrifying as the violent, rule-bending cop. His eyes bulge, his mouth twitches, his body moves in total sync with his character’s curious arc. Watch out for Shannon come awards season.
Tom Ford surprised filmgoers with his terrific debut seven years ago. He delivers another surprise here, though of a different kind, toying with narrative in unexpected ways and pushing himself as an artist. Ford could have rested on his accomplishments and created a more conventional tale, but he chose to stretch himself to new limits. Even if it isn’t a slam dunk like ‘A Single Man’, his panache must count for something.
Callum Ryan is anassociate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 10.