Film Review: Nocturnal Animals

Fashion designer Tom Ford has just released his sophomore film, the dark thriller ‘Nocturnal Animals.’ His directorial debut was the Oscar nominated, poignant, beautiful, and of course stylish, ‘A Single Man’ (2009), but his second outing as director is a far more cold and brutal affair.

Susan (Amy Adams) is an extremely wealthy, jaded and unhappily married art gallery owner, who, out of the blue, receives a manuscript from ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), despite having not spoken for 19 years. With her current husband away on business, she becomes immersed in Edward’s violent crime story that plays out before our eyes on screen. The story follows Tony (who Susan imagines as Edward), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher, with her striking resemblance to Adams) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber), as they set off in their car at night for a road trip holiday. In desolate West Texas they encounter a gang of troublemakers that torment them in their car and eventually run them off the road. After a terrifying struggle, Laura and India are taken from Tony, and later found dead by the police. Completely devastated and full of guilt, Tony is desperate for revenge, hunting down the murderers with Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).

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This story within a story works excellently; we feel how moved, shaken, and disturbed Susan is as she responds to the novel. It prompts her to look back on her relationship with Edward as she reads, with the film moving between the present, the story of the novel, and Susan’s flashbacks. The only moment where this narrative form is somewhat jarring is when the bodies of Laura and India are found, the pale skin of their bare backs contrasting with their long red hair. The film then cuts to a similar shot of Susan’s own daughter in the present. This is certainly an aesthetically appealing shot, however, one can’t help but feel this ignores the horror of the murdered women’s ordeal and Tony’s grief, fictitious or not. However, this jarring moment also makes Edward’s novel all the more effective; it has had such a strong affect on Susan that she worries about her own daughter, calling her to check she’s alright. It’s one of those stories that gets under your skin, not leaving your mind even when your eyes have left the page.

If the film is at times cold, it certainly makes up for it with fantastic, emotive performances from Adams and Gyllenhaal, as both the sensitive and idealistic Edward, and the horrified and vengeful Tony. Perhaps the standout performance, however, is from Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the Ray, one of the criminals who murders Tony’s family. Unrecognisable from many of his previous roles, Taylor-Johnson gives a highly disturbing, crazed performance, with a sense of terrifying unpredictability and complete lack of remorse.

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Ultimately this is a film about revenge. Not just in the story of Edward’s novel – the novel itself serves as revenge. “For Susan,” he dedicates it, and in her flashbacks it becomes clear why he sought vengeance on his ex-wife. More cynical and ambitious than his romantic idealism, she was harsh on his writing and struggled to support his pursuit of it, not seeming to believe he could do it. She tells him they’re not right for each other, that he is too sensitive. “Weak,” Edward interprets it. She denies it, but falls for a more stereotypically masculine man, the ambitious, charming but now unaffectionate man she’s married to, betraying Edward and breaking his heart. By sending her his novel, Edward proved not only that he could write and be an author, but also that he certainly wasn’t weak, with his violent, vengeful crime tale. What’s more, he proves he can still affect her, manipulate her emotions, and make her look back on her past and question her choices.

Indeed, Susan spends the film reflecting on her past decisions and where they have got her. She quickly abandoned her own dreams to be an artist in favour of a more practical and pragmatic life, chasing success and material wealth, which has only left her unhappy, professionally and personally. The film also serves as a critique of capitalism, material excess, and an elite world, which is particularly interesting as Ford occupies this world himself. Susan’s life hasn’t turned out how she once thought it would, and she appears cold and hard; gone is the youthful sweetness she radiated in her early relationship with Edward, not long before she soon started insisting on her practical and cynical personality. With his novel, Edward has made reassess whether she chose the right path. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a highly gripping, engrossing, and naturally, stylish film, with a gorgeously dark visual style that easily moves between the multiple narratives. This is an intriguing portrait of revenge with brutal shocks, and a cautionary tale about the decisions we make and where they lead to, posing questions about strength, ambition, and relationships.

Watch the trailer for ‘Nocturnal Animals’ below:

‘Nocturnal Animals’ is currently playing at Picturehouse cinemas.