Nocturnal Animals (2016) Review

Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Director: Tom Ford
Screenwriter: Tom Ford
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Michael Sheen.

Iconic fashion designer Tom Ford has returned to cinema with his second directorial feature, this time presenting the destruction of love and relationships in this drama-thriller starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal that is surely as beautiful as any movie you’ll see this year.

Nocturnal Animals is essentially a precautionary tale interlocked with a psychological drama that presents the relationship of its two central characters Susan (Adams) and Edward (Gyllenhaal) in a series of flashbacks while Adams’ character reads a long-gestated novel from her ex-partner, Gyllenhaal’s character, and is thus transformed into its crime-thriller world of murder and betrayal. Ford, alongside his editor Joan Sobel, crafted these separately operating universes and time periods together with such aplomb that the narrative of the picture remained entirely comprehensible, with the work done in this regard offering more to the gravitas of the story and investment in the outcome of the characters than much of the rest of the movie in of itself. Additionally, Ford’s work at hinging the narrative of the picture on important moments of realisation or tension, and Sobel’s use of these hinges as portals between each of the film’s worlds, was nothing short of extraordinary and worked to truly emphasise the rest of the film’s long list of good points.

Perhaps the most blatant of the film’s other qualities was the visual mastery at work from Ford and his team. Each shot was constructed in the most pristine fashion as if the finished product of a magazine photoshoot, with everything from the sets to the lighting, and from the camera to the actors, engaging with each other to create the most beautiful of visual outcomes. It was perhaps a necessity to the telling of the story that the film didn’t move away from its polished look at any point, even within the psychological thriller arc that runs through it via the novel, because the importance of the story Ford and company were telling was not necessarily within the movie universe’s ‘fictional’ world but instead within the movie universe’s ‘real’ world, the one in which Adams’ Susan resides. Ford’s choice to shoot each of the worlds so beautifully as to intentionally remove viewers from the impact of the ‘fictional’ world within the movie and instead place them within the pristine ‘real world’ of Susan’s present, thus heaping all of the visually cued subconscious attention onto the key linear narrative that runs through the centre of the film, was extraordinarily well crafted; an element of the picture that was worked with a sophisticated mastery unlike most directors with similarly limited experience.

This same beauty, and Ford’s clearly defined use of every element within any given scene, was also put to task in a number of sequences that were filled with Hitchcockian intensity. The engulfing nature of the novel that connects Susan to her former lover is portrayed in modernist Los Angeles in much the same way that paranoia and loss were portrayed through San Francisco by Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958), with the modern architecture of the art galleries and up-town LA imprisoning the character in the results of her own regrets. It is a stunning visual journey articulately crafted by Ford’s authorial hand with meticulous preparation that stunningly borrows dramatic elements  of metaphor from masters of the craft like Douglas Sirk and even thematic and visual elements from the Westerns of John Ford.

Despite the director’s clearly dictatorial presence, there is still room for a handful of very good performances from the movie’s talented ensemble cast. Amy Adams’ expressionistic face and hushed voice work to accurately portray exactly whom you’d expect her character to be given her present societal position and wearisome past, and she leads the film with the same level of sophistication she displayed in Arrival (2016), though with slightly less impact courtesy of the comparatively less character-focused story. Similarly, Jake Gyllenhaal provides a valuable performance in the other lead role, adding to his ever-growing list of multi-dimensional portrayals with his dual performance of Edward and his fictional self Tony, the latter of whom had an intense on-screen character arc that took a truly stripped-down version of Gyllenhaal to play to such a standard. This performance did, however, also lack in impact for the same reasons as Adams’ did, though sharing a lot of scenes with the outstanding film-stealing duo of Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson certainly didn’t help.

Michael Shannon is typically an actor trusted with filling the roles of intense and uncompromising characters, and this is precisely the case in Nocturnal Animals. His performance was ripe with some of his now trademarked no-nonsense attitude, but it was through the unveiling of his backstory and the resulting empathy that came with it, that the character and performer came to life, producing a layered and morally ambiguous side character in what was ultimately only a small amount of screen time, something that should be considered further evidence as to the success of Ford’s screenplay and direction as well as the quality of Shannon’s craft.

Shannon’s peer and fellow film-stealer Aaron Taylor-Johnson is tipped to be nominated across this awards season, and this is due to a career topping performance as Shannon’s arch-nemesis and the ultimate villain of the movie’s fictional (novel centered) world. The special attraction regarding this performance is perhaps the unexpected nature of its discovery, but it is in the craft of Taylor-Johnson’s work that true praise must be handed to the actor. What this role entailed was a ruthless villainy with an underlying juvenility that the actor portrayed with almost frightening conviction. His performance was nothing short of magnetic; a must-watch series of moments both within the film and the actor’s career that have undoubtedly elevated his stock and certainly made for a lot more investment in his on-screen story and the film as a whole. The actor, now in his mid-20s, could well come to find Nocturnal Animals as one of his defining movies, but it remains a directors film and, given the ultimate control Tom Ford clearly maintained over the entirety of the production, the director must also be accredited for trusting in Taylor-Johnson’s ability to portray the character and then extracting the performance from within him.

Nocturnal Animals is, then, an authorial picture perhaps overlooked by supporters of more typically awards-fare pieces despite its obvious positives. Clean and pristine to a machine-like level, this is a film perhaps devoid of the ability to completely engross and encourage the suspension of disbelief, but is without a doubt a work of art unlike many others in North American cinema at the moment and praise must therefore be heaped upon its screenwriter-director who has proven that ‘A Single Man’ was no fluke with this second piece of immaculate beauty and underlying intensity. For what is essentially a film about a privileged woman reading a book reminiscent of a previous relationship, Nocturnal Animals is thrilling to levels not often seen in modern cinema as a whole and is enticing throughout the entirety of its run-time. This Tom Ford film is more than just an aesthetic piece about beautiful people from within the screenwriter-director’s own world, but is also a universally accessible tale that is told with the same class and sophistication as some of Hollywood’s great classical directors. A true film of the year candidate.

Score: 22/24

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