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A frame of reference being absent can be a productive thing in the movie world. Without having seen fashion-designer-turned-director Tom Ford‘s debut film, the much-praised A Single Man, his sophomore effort Nocturnal Animals was a giant question mark to me. Aside from the early buzz being particularly receptive to the psychological thriller, covering the trailer on HorrorGeekLife here, and the synopsis sounding unique, I was in a frame of mind hopeful of a pleasant surprise. And what a surprise Animals was. From the bizarre, awkward opening credits to the end, you’re taken on an unpredictable, beautifully-scored ride that’ll leave you feeling kind of dirty…but in a good way.
A spoiler-free rendition of the synopsis is this: Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is haunted by her past relationship choices with ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Susan has certainly moved onto a different suitor (Hutton Morrow, played by Armie Hammer) many years prior to the start of the picture, but when Edward sends Susan an early copy of his novel titled “Nocturnal Animals,” she can’t take her mind off of her regrets. In a non-linear fashion, we see the story play out in three parts: one in present day with Susan reading the novel and struggling with her current marriage to Hutton, one in the past where Edward and Susan meet and blossom then destroy their relationship, and one in a fictional reality occurring in Edward’s novel’s world, created as Susan reads through it.
While rather confusing to attempt explaining, Tom Ford masterfully crafts these plot points together and weaves them between each other without explicitly telling you he is. Much of the differing realities have to be acknowledged by the audience through context clues, like hair styles, wardrobe, dialogue, and relationship dynamics. Fortunately, Ford wrangled up an unstoppable cast including Adams, Gyllenhaal, Hammer, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, and Laura Linney, which aided in defining the nuances between the three separate timelines. Adams remains on a roll after a stellar performance in Arrival (our review is here), so seeing her remorseful, vulnerable performance was expected. However, the supporting cast standouts are the real “beasts” of Nocturnal Animals.
Particularly, you’ll feel all of the passion and hate from Gyllenhaal’s fictional counterpart Tony Hastings, you’ll feel the uneasy, methods of Taylor-Johnson’s also fictional sociopath Ray Marcus, and Michael Shannon’s nonchalant, yet also fictional badass Detective Bobby Andes will charm you. Sure, all of these characters are fictional regardless of timeline, but I’m referencing how these three distinct characters exist in an invented world outside of Susan’s reality. Unfortunately, this does make the story within the story far more compelling and thrilling than the story on the surface. What you’ll yearn to see more of is Gyllenhaal, Taylor-Johnson, and Shannon’s work as their three respective personalities.
Beyond that, without ruining any plot-within-the-plot elements, the metaphorical and literal road that Tony and his family travel down is more immediately engaging and gripping. Once Tony encounters the unstable Ray Marcus and his cohorts, you feel every ounce of unease oozing off the screen. You feel hopeless on Tony’s behalf. For more specific context, I can only encourage you to see this play out for yourself. The best way to experience these events is without any prior knowledge. Conversely, more details can afford to be revealed about Susan’s arc, both past and present.
Susan and Edward’s first encounter occurs like any other “meet cute” scenario, regardless of drama. The two have lead very different upbringings, but they bond immediately since they complement each other’s differences so well. As one might expect between two masterclass actors, Adams and Gyllenhaal’s connection reverberates from the beginning of their relationship to its demise, and is so strong you can almost touch it. As you discover the reason behind their marriage’s said demise, it comes off as very organic instead of forced. Actually, what ends up leaving you feeling rather dirty is how the low points feel real. Even in the 2nd reality explored, when these characters act out their baser animal instincts, it’s a human moment rather than a component added for dramatic purposes. Everything that occurs in each subsequent story is a natural progression, which I greatly appreciated in Ford’s film-making and storytelling throughout.
The reactions might have cooled since Nocturnal Animals played at film festivals earlier this year, but Tom Ford’s latest certainly earns a spot in my yearly “best of” list. Almost once a week since seeing the movie, I think about the movie’s structure, elegant musical score, and try to decipher what each physical form represents in the novel’s reality. While Adams is likely to garner award recognition for this role (or hopefully Arrival), attention deserves to be thrown onto Gyllenhaal, Shannon, and even Taylor-Johnson’s outstanding work. Where Taylor-Johnson might not have impressed me personally since Kick-Ass, his time has come and he shows in Animals he’s ready to tackle rather diverse personalities in cinema. The story within the story getting the better of the other two timelines is definitely a con, but it’s the only con that comes to mind (although the ending may baffle some). Otherwise, in Nocturnal Animals, you have yet another must-see film from 2016’s final two months.