A dark drama with dashes of David Lynch oddness and the western violence of Cormac McCarthy (or maybe it’s Tarantino), Nocturnal Animals is riveting and often disturbing, and a story of how we try to live with the consequences of our actions. It wastes no time smacking you into attention – its opening sequence is unconventional, and arresting, to say the least.
The story centres on art gallery owner Susan Morrow, played by Amy Adams, who we see early in the piece clearly not happy with her marriage to Walker, played by Arnie Hammer. He’s apparently often away from home tending to his troubled business. Their relationship is similarly troubled. Then Susan receives a manuscript to read from her first husband Edward, a novel called Nocturnal Animals. Edward, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, has dedicated the book to Susan.
The film then unfolds in several directions. In the present, with Susan negotiating her way through the novel; through the past, as we see her earlier relationship with Edward; and through fiction, as we see Edward’s novel played out, with Jake Gyllenhaal again to the fore, playing Tony, the man whose family are confronted by a gang of thugs one west Texas night. Michael Shannon is the police investigator who tries to help deliver justice to the Gyllenhaal character.
Director Tom Ford artfully blends these threads, and draws out the tension both with due care, and, at times, with abrupt violence. Driving the story is the mystery behind Susan’s past relationship with Edward, and how it is being played out in Edward’s novel. In this, Amy Adams has the biggest task. Her Susan is an ambivalent character. She might be a victim, a villain, or maybe both. She harbours dark secrets and Adams does a superb job showing a character battling these demons. She requires no histrionics to achieve this, and, just as with her work in Arrival, she brings intelligence and integrity to her work. The rest of the cast are just as impressive. Gyllenhaal and Shannon have some great scenes playing off each other, one the gritty and world weary lawman, the other the more naïve and the more uncomfortable in his own skin. And Aaron Taylor Johnson is the criminal foil in the novel storyline. Among other things, he gives us a memorable scene of a bloke sitting on a toilet on his front porch.
A mention too for the cameo from Laura Linney. She is Susan’s mother Anne, and in just a brief scene delivers a pivotal moment to the story with aplomb.
Finally to the work of former fashion designer Tom Ford, who directed and produced the film, and wrote the screenplay. From the opening scene to the last, he stamps his mark. The violent scenes are all the more effective for what they leave out. Some of the intercutting between the storylines is particularly clever. And keep your eyes open – some of those in the aforementioned opening sequence make a return later in the film.
This film has already garnered awards overseas and it’s easy to see why. It’s not light entertainment, but it grabs hold and leaves you wondering right to the final scene. Highly recommended.