THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
The really amazing thing about Nocturnal Animals is that you don't know precisely where it's going until the very last scene. Everything before that is a mystery, one that sucks you in and keeps you riveted as new connections are revealed. Writer/director Tom Ford (A Single Man) is a former fashion designer who famously saved Gucci from bankruptcy. His film, based on the novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright, is beautiful in the way you'd expect from someone with an expertise in fashion, but it's his grasp on complex human emotions that makes the movie so powerful.
Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner unhappily married to a career-focused businessman (Armie Hammer). She receives an advance copy of a new book written by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Reading the novel, she imagines him in the main role. It is a disturbing tale about a road rage incident that leads to a shocking act of revenge. Susan seems to have a level of identification. Via flashbacks, we find out more about her marriage to Edward, which brings into focus what his book is really about and, eventually, why he has mailed it to her.
Two different tones coexist within Nocturnal Animals. Scenes featuring Susan, in present or flashback, are sleekly photographed. They take place in very artistically designed homes and businesses. There is a coldness to them that reflects her unhappiness in life. The scenes set in Edward's story are starker, both visually and atmospherically. At times, the events seem a little unlikely. The characters of a Texas cop (Michael Shannon) and a lowlife criminal (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) feel just a tad over-the-top. This is intentional, because the story is fictional, designed to invoke a reaction from the reader, but more specifically from Susan. Ford expertly modulates those tones, helping us to see that the raw nature of Edward's book is there to knowingly provoke his ex-wife. It's an engrossing balancing act.
Once the pieces are all in place – something that happens in literally the last shot of the film – the impact is devastating. Nocturnal Animals deals with the kind of hurt and pain that leaves lasting emotional scars. While you're watching Edward's story unfold, it's intense. Once you know the meaning behind it, the impact grows significantly. This is a movie that rattles around in your head for days after you see it, so unnerving is its depiction of emotional cruelty. Some of it comes in the form of the fictional story, but just as much spawns from the relationship Susan and Edward had, which started off promisingly, only to cede to personal shortcomings.
That does not mean the film is depressing, though. Quite the opposite. All of it is staged in a vibrant way that increasingly draws you in. The performances aid immeasurably on this count. Amy Adams is fantastic as Susan, whose iciness masks deep vulnerability, as well as a painful awareness of her own flaws. Gyllenhaal does outstanding work, too, playing both Edward and Tony, the fictional hero of the book. His characters go through a lot of pain and rage, which the actor makes utterly believable. Ford surrounds their work with visual elegance that is always appealing to look at. Watching these talented individuals – plus Shannon and Taylor-Johnson – operating at such a high level is a real pleasure.
Nocturnal Animals is a brilliant tale of people dealing with the repercussions of their choices, particularly when those choices have the consequence of hurting others. It sinks its teeth right into you, withholding the last piece of the puzzle until the final moment. This approach makes the film mesmerizing and completely entertaining.
( out of four)
Nocturnal Animals hits DVD and Blu-ray on February 21. There is a 3-part bonus feature entitled “The Making of Nocturnal Animals.” The first section, “Building the Story,” has writer/director Tom Ford eloquently discussing the manner in which the plot melds together a real-life half and a fictional half. He talks about weaving back and forth between them. Some of the stars also weigh in on the subject. “The Look of Nocturnal Animals” explores how cinematography and design choices help to distinguish Susan's world from the world depicted in Edward's story.
Those two segments, which run about four minutes each, are brief but informative. The final segment, “The Filmmaker's Eye: Tom Ford,” is the most enlightening. Here, the director talks about almost subliminal details that cross over from Susan's life to the fictional tale. A red velvet couch, for instance, is the location of something heartbreaking that happened between she and Edward, and also the location of something heartbreaking in his book. Hearing about some of these little clues will certainly make Nocturnal Animals even more compelling on repeat viewings.
Picture and sound quality on the Blu-ray are outstanding.
Nocturnal Animals is rated R for violence, menace, graphic nudity, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.
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