Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals left me shaken, staggering into the falling night, somewhat disheveled as if I’d been either fast asleep or got into a fight during the movie. But this is the 3pm screening at Everyman in posh Surrey, fights don’t belong here and as for sleeping, neither me nor the seven other people in the theatre would even consider it as we all sit on the edge of our hipster sofas, holding our breath, overpriced chips cooling, diet cokes flattening while on the screen, the brilliant thriller unfolds.
Susan (Amy Adams) is a successful art gallery director, growing unhappy by her lifestyle and fissuring marriage to a dashing successful businessman (Armi Hammer). One day, upon returning from work, she finds a package containing a book written by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) and dedicated to her. As her husband is yet again away on a business trip, she starts reading the book and becomes immediately engrossed in the thriller whose characters remind her of Edward and herself. She slowly becomes obsessed with the story, whose hold makes her even more of an insomniac than she already is, and day and night melt into one as she attempts to carry on with her life normally.
The narrative splits in between the book’s fictional story and Susan’s reaction to the story, the reminiscing to her marriage to Edward 20 years before, and the introspection that it all brings. The scenes jump from one to another clearly, effortlessly, never once leaving the viewer confused as to what is happening. Ford playfully and masterfully builds the tension to a point where it is almost unbearable and then, abruptly, turns it down a notch by taking us back to Susan at the most tense moment, leaving us torn between the relief of a little break and the luxury of a few heartbeats and the frustration of not finding out what happens.
The book tells the story of a family whose road trip descends into an awful nightmare. The trip ends in chaotic Texas – its dry, barren and unwelcoming land providing a perfect background to the story; and its beautiful scenery made even more impressive by Tom Ford’s aesthetic eye. The whole movie is a visual treat, the sober, monochrome and dark tones of Susan’s world clashing against the brightness of Texas’s fierce sun and the undulations of the road, of the heat rising from the ground. If the narrative of Susan reading the book takes place over a few days, the story she is reading spans over a year, the eternally sunny Texas giving no indication of how slowly or quickly time passes, whilst the protagonist searches for answers and justice, which add to the tension and anguish.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Susan’s ex, Edward, and his alter ego and main protagonist of his book, Tony. Though his performance is excellent in both roles, he’ll be remembered mainly for his impersonation of Tony, a man eaten alive by sadness and guilt, his face a tortured representation of all stages of grief at once, his quest for revenge and closure fueled by his masochistic need for a detailed explanation and confession. His need for the full truth seems to be the only thing that keeps him alive and sane. In his weaker, most hopeless moments he is guided back to his goal by his odd, somber guardian angel – the sheriff in charge of the investigation, Bobby, played by an excellent Michael Shannon. His edgy character, whose demeanor and actions are not always in sync, as well as his contained volatility, make each one of his screen appearances extremely unnerving (think Javier Bardem playing heads or tails in No Country for Old Men). Joining him, as another nerve-jangling character is the story’s villain, incarnated by Aaron Taylor-Johnson – his youth, good looks and dishonesty not dissimilar to Edward’s representation of Susan’s husband.
All these characters gravitate around the movie’s main persona, Susan. “Do you ever think your life didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to?” she asks her young assistant after one sleepless night of introspection. Years of unhappiness ooze from Susan’s character as she sits on the couch, in the bath, at her desk wondering, regretting, thinking, her breathing amplified by the surrounding silence.
She goes through the motions, with a slightly robotic demeanor emphasised by insomnia. This sober performance is coupled with her impersonation of her younger self, twenty years before, during her relationship with Edward. Susan comes to life, the pallor of her skin and the dark lipstick hardening her face gone, her stiff coolness replaced by a chatty, sparkly eyed, gesticulating passion. Both Susan(s) are immensely convincing in a beautiful, bitter representation of the years that have gone by, slowly gnarling at her sleep, her looks, but never letting her forget her past.
Tom Ford treats us to a perfectly paced, dark and tense story of love, regret and revenge. Not to be missed.
Review by B F Jones
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