Movie Review: Nocturnal Animals

Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016)

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Tom Ford returns to the world of film for his second venture after 2009’s A Single Man with the new Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal headlined thriller Nocturnal Animals.  Ford is known best as a high-end clothing designer, and his trademark attention to detail once again transfers to the silver screen.

Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner who has the means to get everything she could ever want.  She lives in a grandiose modern compound with a full complement of health and her husband when he’s not in New York on work.  Despite all the money and success, Susan’s life appears hollow.  It’s made obvious that her husband is cheating on her before the film confirms it half way through, and her ceaseless insomnia hints at a greater struggle may lie under Susan’s surface.

Her sleeplessness and unease only amplify when her estranged ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends a copy of his manuscript that’s both dedicated to her and named his pet name for her.  Unable to focus on much else as her insomnia worsens, she dives into the manuscript instinctively inserting her ex-husband into the role of protagonist.  From this point on, the film splits between acting out the unsettling and violent manuscript, Susan’s life as she struggles to maintain a grasp on her reality, and flashbacks as she relives her and her ex’s lives together.

Ford balances these storylines with beautiful precision.  Understanding that it’s not enough to cut between them, but that Susan’s present life needs to dictate the transitions.  Particularly troubling scenes in the novel result in her slamming the book shut and a return to reality.  These instances are frequently proceeded by long breaks from the novelized story as Susan wrestles with her past and the flashbacks take center stage.  Through these, the audience is treated to the major developments and milestones as childhood friends Susan and Edward fall in love and subsequently become disillusioned with each other.  The flashbacks also serve as a necessary breath of air as the novel and Susan’s current life both define Nocturnal Animals as a thriller.

As good as Ford is as a director, the acting in Nocturnal Animals is its greatest selling point.  Gyllenhaal is perfectly unsettling in his dual role as the ex-husband Edward Sheffield who feels he was personally wronged and as the fictional Tony Hastings who would do anything for his family.  Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson both contribute awards caliber supporting performances in the world of Edward’s manuscript.  But, as she often does, Amy Adams steals the show.  She instinctively understands what it can be like to have both everything and nothing at the same time.  The emptiness she brings to her present world despite attending art openings, eating out at restaurants most people could only dream of, attending important board meetings as a primary decision maker, and having her every need catered to by her personal home staff is not something that many actors could do with the intensity and plausibility that she does.  It’s truly a shame that Arrival, while great in its own right, is the more commercially receptive film, as it will steal the awards thunder away from Adams Nocturnal Animals performance which is even more deserving.

While an otherwise excellent film, Nocturnal Animals has one major issue that is difficult to overlook, and is unfortunately also deeply entrenched in spoilers requiring some carefully chosen ambiguities.  A major contribution to Susan’s guilt and something that she herself describes as unforgivable is not.  It would be one thing if this statement was a belief that was only held by Susan as a character, but the movie never relieves her of that guilt.  Instead it continues to demonize her over something that it has no right to furthering an aspect of misogyny and female non-autonomy that is not acceptable.  Susan is depicted as a fully formed female character, but the antifeminism intrinsic in that decision overshadows the respect as a character.

Feminist issue aside, Nocturnal Animals is still a breathtakingly precise thriller.  Adams is on the top of her game as expected, and the rest of the cast is up to the challenge of keeping pace with her.   The interweave of stories and flashbacks create a deep picture of Susan as we understand her misery.  The tension inherent in Nocturnal Animals due to some skillful directing proves that if he should ever want to leave the world of fashion, Tom Ford could find a full-time career as a director.

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