Adapted from Austin Wright 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals marks the return of Tom Ford in his directorial guise after a seven year absence. Ford’s second foray into directing sees him taking on an oeuvre which at times seems almost unfilmable. The film is a dense piece with a triple stranded narrative, which owes as much to Hitchcock as it does to the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk. It is a visually stunning tale of getting your own back, and doing so with class and without any regrets.
Amy Adams is Susan, a wealthy art gallery owner who is as successful in her work as she is deeply unhappy in her marriage to handsome, smooth-talking Walker (Armie Hammer). One day Susan receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) whom she hasn’t seen in years. The gift turns out to be a manuscript for a book he has just finished writing.
From then on the film takes on the task of telling the story in Edward’s book while smoothly linking the present day with flashback sequences of Susan’s life with Edward. It soon transpires that Edward’s story is not only a tale of revenge, but writing it then sending to her was in itself an act of revenge. The story manages to unsettle Susan in a way she never imagined, and sends her into a whirlwind of regret and sadness – exactly what Edward hoped to achieve.
The film jumps smoothly between the horror of the crime genre in Edward’s book, and that of the more sedate suspenseful melodrama of the present day narrative. In the story of the book, Gyllenhaal is impeccable as the man who has lost everything through trying to do the right thing. However the biggest praise has to be saved for a phenomenal performance by Michael Shannon as the ailing police detective Bobby, who is out for revenge and who will stop at nothing to get it. Shannon’s brilliance almost manages to eclipse an unrecognisable Aaron Taylor Johnson who puts in the performance of his life as the vicious petty criminal who has nothing to lose. A special mention must go to Laura Linney for a brilliantly scene stealing performance as Susan’s mother. She an old fashioned southern upper class monster of a woman who disapproves of her daughter’s earlier choice, but who Susan ultimately ends up becoming. Linney puts in a memorable performance which leaves you asking for more.
Ford takes on a mammoth task and manages to connect all three narratives, while successfully avoiding cliched devices. Although almost too well polished, Ford delivers a stunning film, managing to be very generous with his actors. Adams is mesmeric in both the story of the book and in the “real life” narrative. There is however a huge amount of camp and exaggerated performance, especially from Adams and Hammer.
All in all, Nocturnal Animals is a brilliantly executed second feature with a gripping narrative which will leave you wanting more. Even though some of the mise en scene might seem laboured, this takes nothing away from the stunning outcome. Ford knows what he likes and how to achieve it, which is rather impressive for someone who has been in the business of making films for less than a decade. A must see.