Tom Ford’s disturbing and often dazzling adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel blends David Lynch’s style with a cool, dry intelligence to create a film that rewards and baffles in equal measure.
Nocturnal Animals is an angry film. An almost tangible bitterness drips from every frame of the picture, directed at nearly everyone and everything involved. It opens with a parade of grotesquery, that makes no attempts to mask the utter contempt it has for the pseudo-intellectual art world that protagonist Susan (Amy Adams) inhabits, and the bile doesn’t stop flowing until the film is over. From there, the audience is flung into the pages of a deeply unsettling novel written by Susan’s jaded ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) and we are invited to share in both parties’ utter despair at the mundanity and abject misery of one another’s lives. While watching it, you may think the cynicism too harsh and often a little unnecessary, but it’s only after the film ends that you appreciate the intent and realise just how good what you saw was.
A lot of writers and filmmakers talk about how pain has influenced their past works, but very rarely is the idea of someone doing this explored in and of itself. Some may see this as a film about revenge, but it goes deeper than that. Yes revenge comes into it, but this is first and foremost a film about grief and its many manifestations. In a letter to Susan, Edward talks of ‘writing from the heart’, which he doesn’t do so much as tear his bleeding heart out and leave it thumping away on the page, conjuring a raw and visceral text, every bit of which serves as a dark reflection of his past with Susan. Even Edward’s choice setting of Texan desert serves as a fitting reflection of the culturally dead cityscape of Los Angeles, with both captured equally masterfully by Seamus McGarvey’s crisp, opulent cinematography.
This is a far cry from Tom Ford’s debut A Single Man, a rather heartfelt, low-key affair about a gay man who decides to commit suicide. But while he may have strayed from the sensitive to the unstable, Ford understands the importance of characters and how to make his audience relate to them. Because despite all the anger and violence, the film is not without empathy.
Adam’s portrayal of the tired and lonely Susan is packed with a kind of sedated, nihilistic sadness. Although the audience is invited to feel animosity towards her, as the intent of Tony’s vicious tract becomes clear, they’re equally invited to recognise her as a human being who’s simply made some bad choices in her life which have led to an unhappy marriage and an underwhelming job. It’s a very bleak experience, but not one that expects its audience to cry, rather feel a crippling sense of guilt. The rest of the cast are on-point too. Gyllenhaal shines as both Edward and his central character Tony: a timid man forced to violence by the actions of those around him, notably Michael Shannon’s marvellously vile police detective and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s intimidating villain. After years of seeing Johnson playing the stock whitebread hero, it’s nice to see him having a go as the bad guy for a change. In fact this may be one of his best performances.
However, given Nocturnal Animals’ wider scope and multi-layered meta narrative, it loses some of A Single Man’s tighter qualities. It juggles so many themes and concepts that several ideas are underdeveloped and often squandered in favour of others. Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough and Laura Linney all make cameo appearances where they spout garbage about their vacuous, privileged lives, but that’s about it. Ford’s other attempts at a critique of the LA art scene are a little too obvious, and as striking as the opening imagery is, there doesn’t really seem to be much of a point to it other than for people to look and say ‘ooh how shocking!’. It feels out-of-place in a film as clever as this.
Nothing comes close to being a deal breaker, though, and despite the disposable, slightly gratuitous nature of the cameos and social commentary, everything comes together in the end to reflect the awful life that Susan leads. Excessive? For sure, but it’s excessive in a stylish, pulpy, exploitative sort of way, reminiscent of David Lynch’s past works, or a really good Giallo.
People will either come out of Nocturnal Animals impressed or thoroughly confused. It’s that kind of film: a big, glitzy, slightly unwieldy piece of cinema that bloggers and critics will pick apart and analyse for years to come – it’s similar in many ways to Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and will probably attract much of the same controversy and stigma. While it’s by no means one of the best films of the year, it ticks two of the most important boxes a film can tick: it makes you want to keep talking about it long after the lights in the cinema have come back on and you find out that you’ve trodden in someone else’s chewing gum, and makes you feel an emotion other than seething hatred. Ironic, when you consider the film’s subject matter.
Nocturnal Animals (2016), directed by Tom Ford, is distributed by Focus Features. Certificate 15.