Monday 22 April 2019

Movie Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

A social drama with an embedded crime thriller, Nocturnal Animals is a complex and gripping multi-layered experience.

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) manages an art gallery and is trapped in an icy cold and disintegrating marriage with the cheating Hutton (Armie Hammer). She receives a book manuscript titled Nocturnal Animals from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Intrigued to find the book dedicated to her, she starts reading.

The novel recounts the fictional story of Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenaged daughter India (Ellie Bamber). While on a long road trip in rural western Texas they tangle on the highway with a group of thugs led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The horrifyingly violent episode ends with Tony humiliated and separated from his abducted family. Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) is assigned to find the two missing women and apprehend the perpetrators.

Susan is entranced by the novel, and recalls her relationship with Edward from initial courtship to the stress of a young marriage, finding parallels between the novel and their troubled history.

Seamlessly unfolding within three different frames, Nocturnal Animals weaves multiple interlinked stories with effortless ease. Director and writer Tom Ford displays a deft touch to stretch delicate threads between Susan's current and past lives and the fiction in her hands written by her ex-husband. The film is both a baroque composition and a revenge thesis, and works brilliantly in both contexts.

While superficially Susan's marriage-gone-wrong should have little in common with a crime-most-foul and a lust for revenge in the Texas desert, she senses the unsettling connection early. The raw power in Edward's story revealing the insecurities and anguish in alter ego Tony's heart carry unmistakable resonance, leading Susan to question where and how she steered her life. She carries guilt related to how the relationship with Edward ended, and the novel creates an opportunity to both make amends and rediscover her soulmate's trajectory.

Ford portrays Susan's current status in soulless darkness, and uses blues, blacks, shiny surfaces and not an item out of place to convey a perfectly empty life. In contrast Tony Hastings' nightmare burns in the Texas sun, grand skies, yellows and reds engulfing the rage at his own weakness and a passion to finally step forth and be counted.

Nocturnal Animals features four outstanding performances. Amy Adams covers plenty of terrain from a young woman in love to an emotionally stifled gallery manager passing the point of caring about her second husband's cheating antics. Jake Gyllenhaal plays two separate but related roles as the sensitive first husband Edward and the flawed family man Tony.

Michael Shannon stands as tall as Texas, a detective with unique methods and a personal agenda. And finally Aaron Taylor-Johnson creates a cinematic monster for the ages in Ray Marcus, barely in control of any emotion and willing to improvise his actions on the fly in response to juvenile provocations real or perceived. Together the four actors create unforgettable dynamics and textured characters feeding off each other's strengths and weaknesses.

Ford plays with the theme of personal growth towards directions predicted and potentially unwanted. Susan's worst nightmare is to grow into her calculating mother (Laura Linney, expertly stealing her one scene), but there she is, giving up on her dreams and seeking the shallow pampered life at the expense of happiness. Edward was always the romantic type, just as likely to live in poverty as he is to write a seminal novel, and his brilliance now rests in Susan's hands. She both gave up on him and inspired his greatest achievement, and his creativity will again seep into her life, and not always as she expects.

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