Bleugh. I feel dirty.
I'm shuddering just thinking about what I watched eight hours ago. A film I expected to be a little dark, a little thrilling, and a little pretty. But what I witnessed was something else entirely... What exactly Nocturnal Animals is, is something up for debate. Perhaps it's a thriller; perhaps it's a romance in nuclear meltdown; or perhaps it's a Gone Girl-esque meditation on marriage. Perhaps it's all three. Or perhaps it's none of those things.
I. Just. Don't. Know.
|'Art' - don't you see? Nah, neither does Susan.|
Following on from the fantastic A Single Man, Tom Ford has made an altogether different movie. Whereas that earlier effort was free flowing, tender, and emotional; Nocturnal Animals is violent, disturbing, and meticulously cold. Based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, we follow three different plot strands set in different times. First, however, we begin with a conspicuously weird peep show of morbidly obese, full-frontal naked women bouncing up and down wearing tacky American merchandise. It's also accompanied with a surreal glitter shower straight out of the Neon Demon. Continuing on directly from this, in the present, we meet Amy Adams's Susan - a middle aged gallery owner living in the superficial world of LA. She lives in a minimalist mansion so shiny that when she drives up to it she has to shield her eyes; and which has a fuckoff massive Jeff Koons balloon sculpture beside her huge pool. This empty abode is shared with her servants; and her husband (played by Armie Hammer), who we quickly learn has.... erm... other interests. Yes, she does know.
Susan becomes the sort of turning point for the rest of the movie; living her hollow life in a hollow shell of a house. Glimpsing the endless carpet of stars that meets the dazzling lights of Hollywood, we feel just as she does: empty. Ford's depiction of Susan's life is so meticulously calculated, so devoid of emotion, that an audience can't help but feel anything but coldness for her. Ironic, considering that the images showcased here are likely remarkably similar to La La Land - which should have you swooning for the city. But no, not this time. We sit above it all, looking down on disdain (Susan doesn't even seem to care that much that her husband is cheating on her. She's certainly not surprised). These scenes are full of symmetry, beauty, and style. They also establish a certain je ne sais quoi of artiness that I just couldn't pin down... I'm constantly reminded of that same feeling in The Neon Demon. A feeling that a mainstream picture had just piqued that arthouse style perfectly, and no more.
Of course, as interesting as this study may be, we need something to spice up the mood a little - something that arrives as an inconspicuous package on Susan's door one fateful day. Inside the package lies 'Nocturnal Animals', a novel written by her former husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Cutting her hand whilst opening it (really subtle Tom.... really subtle), she finds a sweetly worded note offering a meet-up in a few days time. Husband out on 'business', and guards dismissed for a break, Susan spends the following two days alone in her vast, empty house reading the manuscript...
The manuscript, by the way, is one hell of a motherfucker - totally unlike the stories Edward used to write (I presume). And, in a clever touch, we see it as viewed in the mind's eye by Susan herself. It's a sun-drenched neon nightmare, wherein Tony (a decent man played by, you guessed it, Jake Gyllenhaal) and his young, beautiful family (wife remarkably looking like Amy Adams but not actually played by Amy Adams) are driven off the road by a bunch of redneck psychopaths, led by an incredible Aaron Taylor Johnston. After around 10-15 minutes of the tensest standoff we've seen all year, and then it's emotional repercussions, we join back up again with Tony for his sweet, bloody revenge. Paired up by hardboiled-and-yes-we-know-it's-a-cliche-we're-self-aware detective Michael Shannon, the path to justice is anything but straight. In case you didn't realise, this manuscript is dark. It's mysterious, tragic, disturbing, and worst of all, it has no optimism whatsoever. It's an endless snuff-film torrent of pain and anguish, the kind of work where nobody wins yet everybody loses.
|Why so sad? Oh... yeah....|
And, as we begin to find out, this story starts to correspond to Susan's life, and it's affecting her badly. Perhaps, I believe, she hallucinates that she has a daughter rather than actually having a conversation with her on the phone. A piece of furniture here or there; a colour; perhaps a theme - a mistake, a regret. And then come the recollections of her past life. The circumstances in which she left Edward and transitioned to her upper-tiered lifestyle; heated conversations with her mother; the freedom she felt in her youth. It all comes rushing back to an expectedly heartbreaking epiphany that leads into a conclusion that had the audience of the Covent Garden Odeon palpably groaning in annoyance. Or was it annoyance? I'm not sure to be honest; at the time, I felt a little bummed at the lack of closure (you'll see what I mean), but then, thinking about it now, I've come to regard it as not only the best way the film could have ended, but also the ending with the most closure as well. Although it may not add anything dynamic, it certainly rounds off the picture on an appropriately bitter note.
Some have indeed criticized the whole affair as being overly cold and heartless. I tend to think they've missed the point. In a film which ends up being very much about a certain kind of cold, heartless lifestyle; it makes sense that we never truly feel sorry for it's characters. We never truly feel anything, save for perhaps Gyllenhall's turn as Tony. Maybe then we feel something. But, again, this segment - despite making up perhaps the majority of the runtime - is still a fiction within a fiction. It is a story constructed by a made up author to convey a heightened emotional reality in contrast with the heartlessness of the banally grand life lived by real people. And, so, the film as an intellectual exercise is indeed as warm and human as the house in which Susan inhabits (which is to say, not); something so few filmmakers today are prepared to do.
|Now this the kinda lighting imma talk about.|
The acting, as well, is similarly fantastic. Aaron Taylor Johnston is the perfect psychopath. 70s 'tasche, leering stare, and an unhinged wobble in the voice that betrays more than a hint of madness. The presence he exerts is domineering and mentally exhausting, forcing Tony into a pigeonhole of immasculinity that he just isn't prepared to enter. Speaking of Tony, Gyllenhall's double role is one of the strongest he's had in years. To be Edward, he needs to have a certain 'genuineness' about him - something that's nigh on impossible to fake. And he plays it straight down the line - perfectly. To be Tony, he needs to have this same crucial vulnerability, but also with an inescapable sadness and an insatiable anger. To look into Gyllenhall's eyes in Nocturnal Animals is to stare into an abyss of tragedy and to see that same look of a PTSD sufferer. Crazy stuff... I swear to God, if he doesn't get an Oscar nom....
|Tom Ford and co. on set|
But, hell yeah, it gets even better! Amy Adam's leading performance is the stuff of acting dreams. In a role that consists 3/4 of reading a manuscript, her minute nuances of genuine psychological trauma being hidden under the mental physique of an LA personality are an absolute masterclass.... I've not seen Arrival yet; but from what I hear, this is one hell of a year for Adams. Isla Fisher also does a good job of playing Amy Adams's character; which may sound weird, but kinda makes complete sense in the overall context of the movie. Michael Shannon brings the only comedic relief in the entire film in the form of a downcast, nihilistic, beat detective. Sounds cheery huh? But seriously, he's fucking fantastic! Aaaaarghghghghghgh the talent in this film! His character is one of supreme morals in the conventional sense of justice - and finds ways of exercising righteous vengeance upon those who have wronged others. But he's also soft at heart, and wants nothing but the best for Tony. As he says himself, he's 'the guy that looks into stuff around here'.
It's worth briefly mentioning Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough in genius turns as a flamboyant and weird-to-say-the-least married couple in a couple of scenes as thoroughly excellent. I don't have much to say on the matter, but it's more ammunition to add to the arsenal of just how good Nocturnal Animals is.
|Suddenly, she didn't look young anymore.|
In another striking scene, a Paranormal Activity-esque nightcam video of a baby, on a phone, rapidly changes to a horrific jumpscare that nobody expected. This lends the other frames of the movie a nervy, tense quality whereby we expect jumps constantly. We share the same unease that Susan feels when she reads; and, although that may not amount to anything other than paranoia, there's always the chance (or probability) that there will be something else just around the corner. It's just constantly perfect to the nth degree. I cannot stress this enough.
As you had probably guessed by now, this perfection extends rightfully to the score (because why wouldn't it). It's something straight out of a Hitchcock movie, no doubt about it. Trembling strings build to a frightening pitch in unmistakably The Birds-esque fever. If you hadn't already figured out what type of film you were watching, it becomes goddamn clear now. It's beyond excellent, and entirely pitch perfect to what amounts to a so called 'Hitchcockian thriller'. You notice I say 'so called'... That, my dear reader, is because Nocturnal Animals is entirely original. It's themes may be past trodden material - but it's execution is novel to a T.
I guess it's kinda the anti-Gone Girl. That film's about an entirely unrealistic scenario in which a psycho lies, cheats, and kills her way to some messed up conclusion. Nocturnal Animals, on the other hand, is a perfectly realistic drama outside of the central novel. A (former) couple bicker, and lie, and cheat; and break each other's hearts. And, by the end, what's left? Nothing, but the crushing revelation that unlike the movies, when we fuck up - there's no going back. And unlike theoretical insane murderers, that's something that's truly terrifying.
|It is intoxicating.|
In the end, what Tom Ford has created is an undeniable, provocative masterpiece: a perfect balance of style and substance colliding to make something quite unlike anything you've seen before. There's Hitchcock, Kubrick, Luzbeski, Fincher, Tarantino, Malick, Cronenberg and so much more in here. But, above all this, Nocturnal Animals is far greater than the sum of it's parts. It is a truly beautiful, dark, immersive, and shattering experience. It's relentless in it's anger; cathartic in it's rage; and, like the most vicious hurricane, it ain't gonna stop for you...
|Nocturnal Animals gets 5 stars!|