Film can be, and most surely should be, an art form; despite what Hollywood’s immensely high-budgeted spectacles will tell you. Tom Ford’s previous and only film A Single Man very much followed this path towards artistry, but nothing in comparison to his 2016 showpiece – Nocturnal Animals.
Based on Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, the film tailors around Susan Morrow, played wonderfully by Amy Adams, an art gallery owner that is deemed successful but unfulfilled emotionally; yet despite attempts to ignite a blaze that has long burned out, it’s not until her ex-husband sends her a manuscript of his upcoming novel that she finds that well needed spark.
The films opens with a bizarre opening credit scene showcasing a pair of large women throwing some shapes in their birthday suits, with Ford setting up the film’s artistic style from the outset. Much like Susan’s extravagant opening night sequence, the remainder of the film is beautifully crafted through some expert use of mis en scene and editing. Ford’s film is very much a non-linear story, transitioning between Susan’s reading and the images she’s formulating in her mind, and it’s crystal clear that the director of photography Seamus McGarvey and editor Joan Sobel had met on mutual terms; bringing forth a spectacularly presented film that shows no indication of half-assery. The slick editing allows audiences to feel equally invested in both the film’s fiction and Susan’s reality by fluently manoeuvring between her reading, and the events unfolding within Edward’s revengeful manuscript. As the film progresses, it’s evident that Edward’s tale is a form of retribution towards his ex-wife, with the events in his harrowing tale juxtaposing the equally as chilling relationship that he and Susan once shared. In fact, the theme of revenge pretty much runs through the film’s entirety (note the lingering long shot of the ‘Revenge’ painting in Susan’s gallery), with the manuscript being an embodiment of Edward’s transition from being a supposed ‘weak’ and ‘sensitive’ lover to a more hardened and unsusceptible character.
Within Edward’s story of self-vulnerability Jake Gyllenhaal also plays the role of Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal also playing a double role in Villeneuve’s Enemy), a devoted yet soft father and husband, whose powerlessness allows an initial family vacation to turn into something much more malevolent. Edward’s sinister fabrication has a profound effect on Susan’s psyche, forcing her to both retrospectively and internally feel a deep sense of guilt over her previous wrongdoings.
Nocturnal Animals is guided through some exceptional performances from the all-star cast on offer, but it’s Jake Gyllenhaal and Aaron Taylor-Johnson who steal the show, here. Although Gyllenhaal’s magnum opus so far is his role in Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, his performance here is tantamount to his brilliance in titles such as Prisoners and Zodiac, once again fortifying his reputation as a criminally underrated, yet monumentally talented actor. On the opposite side of the spectrum you have Taylor-Johnson, who fits into the shoes of an antagonist with ease, bringing forth a terrifying performance of the ruthless and borderline psychopathic Ray Marcus; the man responsible for Hasting’s abolishment of self righteousness. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that this is Taylor-Johnson’s finest role yet, whose fantastic performance might just let me forgive his atrocious attempt at an Eastern-European accent in Avengers: Age of Ultron… Might.
Arguably the film’s denouement will perhaps leave some viewers frustrated and unsatisfied, but personally, I’d argue that it’s more bittersweet than lacklustre. It’s clear before the final credits begin to scroll that both Edward and the fictionalised Tony Hastings have undergone a well needed shift in character. Sheffield does not give in to Susan’s attempt to rectify her mistakes, and Hastings tastes the fulfilling pungency that is revenge; both stepping aside from their original vulnerable and ‘weak’ nature and becoming far more strong willed and hardened. Clichéd? Yes. But effective? Absolutely.
A revenge tale that’ll keep you hooked!
All in all, Nocturnal Animals guides you along on a handsomely crafted journey of self-discovery, with a few traumatic kicks thrown in here and there. Its visuals are aesthetically pleasing and its progressive narrative will maintain your investment, but it’s the film’s artistic and atmospheric undertone that will leave you in awe. It truly is a delight to behold.