Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) thoughts towards Nocturnal Animals hits it right on the nose: “It’s violent and it’s sad”. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ in this context is a typescript of Morrow’s ex-husband’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) first effort at a novel, and bears more than a few similarities to the way in which the couple broke up to be merely coincidental…
Morrow herself is an art gallery owner, specialising in an oddball raunch that dominates the screen during the film’s opening credits. She’s stranded in a loveless marriage to a hunky husband (Armie Hammer) who’s more occupied with work (and other women) than anything regarding his wife. Cue the ex-husband’s typescript, sent to Morrow at a time when she’s in desperate want of connection. A way to contact her ex again – just what she needs, right? Not quite.
The novel within a film plunges headfirst into a highway scene with a ferocious intensity that rivals Sicario’s border crossing scene last year. It’s a jagged, welcome tonal shift, tinged with uncertainty over what’s going to happen. In fact, the whole narrative of Nocturnal Animals – both the film itself and its titular typescript – is unpredictable, and we can’t help but sympathise with the main character’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) hapless plight in this thrilling revenge story.
Back in the real world – shot with fusty gusto – Morrow is mulling over the story and recollecting haunted memories of her prior life with her ex-husband. There’s a sense of disconnect, of lack of relevance, but suddenly parallels between their romance and the typescript’s narrative become apparent, building to a devastating final scene that’s as electrifying as it is inevitable. The film is endlessly evolving, bludgeoning past brutal plot points and descending into irresistible, dirty delirium, heightened by Abel Korzeniowski’s sublimely tempestuous score. Yet director Tom Ford and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey give control to the chaos, with an assuredness applied to the kinetic camerawork, the brooding pans of musty citylife and desolate deserts. The danger and immorality on display really is tangible.
One source of danger comes in the form of Aaron Taylor Johnson’s terrifying and unhinged Ray Marcus, who torments Gyllenhaal and his fictional family. This is Johnson’ best performance of his career, committing to his character’s sleaziness and repugnancy, and preventing Ray from becoming caricaturish. Another brilliantly absurd character is the cop looking for him, played by Michael Shannon with straight-faced hilarity. He’s a character inflicted with lung cancer, who continues to smoke (“Well, yep, that’s how it works”), and nearly steals the show with his deadpan delivery and questionable morals. Other recognisable, or renowned actors, are relegated to the sidelines, however: Michael Sheen and Jena Malone each feature in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos, but at least their fleeting moments are highlights.
I’ve seen this film twice now, which I suppose is testament to how the film grips – and then sinks its claws into you. It’s menacing, and bold, and each scene is displayed with enough unwavering confidence and dedication by Ford (save for one Gyllenhaal outburst) that it all holds together. That this is only his sophomoric effort, after his acclaimed ‘A Single Man’, is truly astonishing. He may not just be a fashion designer, but he uses his considerable expertise in that field to capture beautiful imagery and symbolic costume design, and boy, it works.
Ford has birthed a film that’s dripping with grime but presented with gloss, creating an almost ugly beauty that’s visually fascinating. It’s a savage study of an intricate relationship, furnished with the bravado of a director that knows how to handle a script that’s jet-black in both themes and humour, and bolstered by a blistering score and vivid camerawork.