TIFF Review: 'Nocturnal Animals'

Nocturnal Animals
(USA/UK, 116 min.)
Written and directed by Tom Ford
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Karl Glusman, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Ellie Bamber
Programme: Special Presentations (North American Premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF
Tom Ford is in this season. The fashion designer turned filmmaker follows up his debut feature A Single Man with an equally fine cut of cinema. Thrilling, intoxicating, gruelling, and devastating, Nocturnal Animals proves Ford to be one of the best new voices in filmmaking today.

Ford once again adapts a literary source and brings to the screen a take on Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan. Susan (Amy Adams) receives a surprise from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) one weekend when, naturally, things are starting to hit a wall in her career, finances, and marriage to her second husband (Armie Hammer). The unexpected gift of a manuscript from Edward shakes her. As Susan cracks open the proofs for his book Nocturnal Animals and sees a dedication to her, the thinly disguised parable that follows exposes their divorce and the dark, devastating trauma that percolates once spouses split.

Nocturnal Animals employs a fractured structure as Ford moves from the disquieting scenes of Susan reading Edward’s novel and the parallel storyline of his book dramatising the breakdown of their marriage. The film takes Susan down a dark journey as Edward writes about a couple—Tony and Laura—that faces a bad run while driving their daughter to school. Imagine Susan’s surprise when the description of the wife and mother matches her perfectly. Ford doesn’t provide any words to accompany Susan’s reading, but the casting of Amy Adams’ doppelganger Isla Fisher as Tony’s wife in the story-within-the-story shows that art imitates life somewhere, somehow within this novel. By omitting Edward’s prose, Nocturnal Animals draws the viewer into the intimate uncovering the divide between Susan and her husband. The literary storyline plays more like life than like art as Ford favours stark and gritty aesthetics for these scenes while Susan’s life looks so perfect it could be in a magazine.

If the book surprises Susan with its female lead, then its major twist is a gut-punch for someone reading the story of her life. Simply put: Edward kills her. He kills their daughter too. Their deaths leave Susan visibly shaken, but the way in which Edward kills them—a brutally unpleasant tease, abduction, rape, and murder—reframes Susan’s perspective of a man she remembers well. Flashbacks introduce Susan’s courtship with Edward and the film invites Susan to write her own story as she mentally constructs the failings of her marriage in retrospect, including a pivotal conversation with her mother, played by Laura Linney in of those brief cameos that proves to be a highlight as she takes on high society with a boozy debutante of a matriarch. As Nocturnal Animals weaves between the storyline of Susan’s marriage Gone Girl style with a devilish she said/he said dynamic, the film engrosses as a page-turner as the narratives converge to the event that inspired Edward to rewrite their marriage.

Adams and Gyllenhaal are excellent as the estranged Susan and Edward/Tony. Susan lets Adams branch out from the sweet girl-next-door characters at which she excels in films like The Fighter or Junebug. She’s not a bad person, but she harbours a metropolitan restlessness that can be very dangerous when one has a hungry appetite, a hefty wallet, and a testy rebellious streak. Adams gives a performance that acts as a female counterpoint to Gyllenhaal’s own sleep-deprived work in Nightcrawler. Playing a woman frazzled by fitful nights and jittery shot-nerves worn down by sleep deprivation, she’s a caged beast, a red-headed lioness ready for the nightcrawler’s prowl.

Gyllenhaal, similarly, continues his string of A-level performances playing the desperate and meek Tony. An unlikely man to carry a revenge thriller, Gyllenhaal’s fictional schoolteacher ranks among his best performances as Tony carries on in the aftermath of his grief. The insecure thought that his failure to protect his wife and daughter puts the weight of their deaths on his conscience, and Gyllenhaal gives a performance of unwavering magnetism as Tony evolves into a renegade hero out to avenge his family. Aided by a chain-smoking, cuss-talking lawman (Michael Shannon, fierce beyond words), Tony goes down a dark odyssey to nail the hoodlum (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, unrecognisably slimy) who robbed him of his family. The man in the book and the man behind the book both seek justice for a marriage cut cruelly short.

Nocturnal Animals puts Ford in heavy territory following the suicidal A Single Man. Like one of the director’s finely cut suits, however, Ford’s work is best when it’s jet black and thrilling. Heartache, loss, and devastation are rarely so satisfying as Nocturnal Animals leads to numerous score-settlings and a gratifying comeuppance.

The film exceeds the ravishing aesthetics of A Single Man as Ford restrains his vision to suit the reserved sombre moods of both storylines. Ford favours dark interiors that convey the disturbed psyches of the film’s nocturnal animals, while DP Seamus McGarvey captures the width and emptiness of Susan’s life in her impeccable, if soulless, home. The costumes by Arianne Phillips are stunning and the sleek perfection of Susan’s tailored life contract sharply with the grit of Tony’s story. Ford’s compositions show a fine eye for lines, colours, and spatial relations as every shot comes loaded with weight and meaning. The gorgeous beauty of the film makes it twice as devastating.

TIFF runs Sept. 8-18.
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