Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Director: Tom Ford

****

What a strange beast Nocturnal Animals is.

Like so many creatures that emerge in the darkness, it’s at once alluring and repulsive, and thoroughly unpredictable. That’s entirely the point, of course; to follow his stylish and moving debut A Single Man, fashion designer-turned-writer/director Tom Ford has made a film of contradictions, where truth and artifice constantly switch roles. In adapting Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Ford has produced something lurid and provocative, but still with that pronounced style that defined his first film. The style’s a lure, though. This is a film that’s twisted in both content and form. There are narratives within narratives, whose brightly-lit worlds are deceptive and whose strangest sights bring their own kind of beauty.

The opening credits are a good example of Ford’s methodology here. The credits are backgrounded by a series of obese women dancing naked. The women are set against a velvety red wall that envelops the screen in warmth, thanks to the efforts of DoP Seamus McGarvey. Thanks to the oft-garish colours and another sumptuous string-led score from Abel Korzeniowski, beauty can be found even in so unorthodox a sight. The dancing women are part of an exhibit being put together by gallery owner Susan Morrow. The role of Morrow sees Amy Adams exchange her natural charm for excess make-up, horn-rimmed glasses and a cold demeanour, as Morrow’s dissatisfied with her pristine L.A. life.

Susan’s pretty house, prettier boyfriend (Armie Hammer) and obvious wealth cannot dispel her angsty fog. Indeed, this fog seems to cover the Los Angeles of Nocturnal Animals. An early aerial shot of the city at night shines a bright light on its skyscrapers, leaving the streets in the dark, like an eerie alien landscape. For all the colours McGarvey can bring to the city, it’s intentionally cold to the touch. All is artifice in Ford’s vision of L.A., from every overly made-up face to the jangling jewellery worn by a near-unrecognisable Andrea Riseborough. Indeed, the polish can feel excessive at first, lapsing into silliness, but as time goes on, this feeds into Ford’s point.

Instead of harsh realities, we get a delivery of very harsh fiction. Susan is sent a draft of a novel from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a piece of hard-boiled crime drama entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals’, which he’s dedicated to her. Like Wright’s original novel, the film plunges into this book’s narrative, in which Tony (Gyllenhaal again) goes through a night of hell travelling through rural Texas, as he and his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) are menaced and tortured by a band of rednecks, led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray. Their initial encounter is a prolonged and masterful exercise in tension, as Ray’s gang drive the family car off the road and proceed to psychologically torture their quarry. Tony’s inability to do anything about it is matched only by the anxiety that never stops building behind him. Nocturnal Animals is a film about weakness and insecurity, male weakness especially. Nocturnal animals prey on the weak.

The novel’s narrative brings a change in look and feel, going from polished galleries to the parched Texas sands. The book’s story is foreboding and cruel, and the shift in style feels the same way at first. The intertwining of narrative strands between Susan’s life, the novel, and flashbacks to hers and Edward’s marriage initially jar. Shifts between L.A. and the novel are usually signalled by Susan dropping the manuscript in a horrified daze. Yet, as Tony and Sheriff Andes (Michael Shannon, charm and accent as thick as molasses) chase the wrongdoers, and the switches between Hollywood glam and Hell Or High Water-alike grit become more frequent, they also begin to gel. Edward has dedicated his book to Susan for a reason, and her memories of him grow increasingly melancholy. This is by Edward’s design, though. Nocturnal Animals is a testament to the liberating power of creativity, as Edward expresses his darkest feelings to Susan using this narrative, a method he never could have used before their divorce. The weakness is dispelled by his creative strength.

Ford plays fast and loose with expectations throughout Nocturnal Animals. While he admirably keeps the interloping structure of narratives from the source novel, he also makes changes to accentuate the tonal shifts. In the novel, Morrow was a teacher and mother of three; in Ford’s world, she has only a floundering relationship and failing gallery to her name. These changes, these exaggerations, add an extra punch when emotion and violence do come to the fore. This and Andrew Dominik’s documentary on Nick Cave, One More Time With Feeling, would make an excellent double-bill treatise on how great creativity can be triggered by intense trauma. (All this begs the question: is Ford working out a weakness of his own in this adaptation? It hardly matters. This is a film that will offer wildly different ideas and meanings to different viewers)

It’s a tribute to Gyllenhaal and Adams that they keep the audience invested, even as tones and timelines pinball wildly. Both impress in roles that see them put aside natural charisma for broken people, whose pain is etched in every grimace. The eccentricities of the film’s look and tone extend to the supporting cast. What Michael Sheen or Laura Linney (A vision in pearls and a Southern-fried accent as Susan’s mother) are doing here is anyone’s guess, but they add undeniable flavours. Best of the bunch is Taylor-Johnson, delivering levels of ever-present menace many would have thought beyond him (Remember him as the leading man in Godzilla? Nope, us neither.)

What Ford has done here, as both writer and director, is remarkable. On the surface, Nocturnal Animals is over-stylized and potentially devoid of empathy. Yet, as it goes on, it forges its own path, keeping the style while making its angst more relatable and palpable. It’s a sleight of hand that’s both blatant in its machinations, yet surprising in its emotional power. The vividness of its colours and the horrors of its violence ensure a place in the memory, but there are levels at work here that mean Nocturnal Animals’ deeper meanings could sneak up on you when you least expect it.

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