Friday, December 9, 2016

Nocturnal Animals

From the unconventional opening credits to the crushing final scene, Nocturnal Animals is a tour-de-force you won't be able to take you eyes off of. Using a story within a story to reveal the truth about his characters, writer/director Tom Ford delivers a taut psychological thriller involving art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) whose blasé hoity-toity life is shaken by the arrival of a manuscript by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). Shown in three interlocking tales, we are witness to Susan's current timeline and marriage to husband number two (Armie Hammer), flashbacks of her marriage to Edward (Gyllenhaal), and the fictional tale which unfolds in brighter tones and more visceral glee than anything in her current life, rocking Susan to her core.

Of the three, it's Edward's manuscript which turns out to be the most impressive on film. Also casting Gyllenhaal as a husband and father whose family (Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber) is harassed and attacked late one night on a empty stretch of road in west Texas by a group of hoodlums (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo), we're given a front-row seat to the tragic consequences of that night.

Either by accident or design the story within the story feels far more real than Susan's daily life involving a ridiculous house more museum than home, a tepid marriage, and a career that provides no passion. Her ex-husband's story, while violent, bizarre, angry, and mournful, reignites something in Susan long dead and forces her to remember both the good and bad days of her first marriage. You could argue the film could be just as effective if only the story within a story was used, but Ford does patiently take his time to connect all three timelines in a way that provides the most fitting ending possible for his film.

Gyllenhaal is the stand-out here doing double duty as two separate characters who it's impossible to separate. What's far more interesting is looking for Susan in the other characters and events of the writer's tale. The title of his work refers directly to her, so who is she? I have my opinion, but I'll leave it for you to decide for yourself. Adams is terrific as always and Ford uses her icy aloofness for maximum effect, juxtaposing it against the unexpected rush of reading what her former lover has poured his heart and soul into.

Just as well used are Fisher and Bamber as the family terrorized in fictional storyline while Aaron Taylor-Johnson leads the disturbing trio whose appearance will give you second thoughts about ever driving down a mostly deserted highway late at night ever again. And as a cherry on the sundae, Ford gives us Michael Shannon in a small but pivotal role who breathes life into what otherwise could have been a completely forgettable character brought in to deal with the aftermath.

I can't tell whether or not Ford would be someone you would want to spend any free time with. His view of humanity, as presented here, is pretty damn bleak. It's also fascinating. Nocturnal Animals is a rich and vibrant tapestry that interweaves the tales of some pretty selfish bastards together while providing the unexpected and forcing the most honest characters to take the brunt of the harsh truth which he lays out in exquisite detail.

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