Nocturnal Animals is without question a transporting tale, stylish and clever, but it is also an onslaught of cruelty, yearning and pathos. A waking dream that niggles away.
At its core, it is about the things that really matter in life, the things that take some of us a lifetime to figure out. Art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) once left behind her loving relationship with Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an aspiring writer, for a callow businessman more acceptable to her conservative establishment family. For Edward, there was never any doubt about what he wanted, and he remained true to himself as a teacher of literature at a school in Dallas. It has been the kind of life that Susan dreaded living alongside him, and he has nursed the devastation of their split some 20 years ago.
Their lives intersect again when he sends Susan the draft of his new novel. It is dedicated to her. What an incentive to begin reading! She settles down with it over the weekend after the opening night success of her exhibition, an installation of naked female figures, dancing and at rest.
We were thrown into this event with the opening credits. It is a vision of unfettered female flesh that the late Federico Fellini could have been created, or the figurative artist Patricia Piccinini. The director, Tom Ford, has said that his moving statues, the naked and obese older women, were meant to signify freedom of expression, freedom from constraint. Well, I don’t really buy that.
It has instead the chill of the fastidious fashion and style guru. With little effort made to tie these nudes into the narrative, it’s just looks like shock value. And it is surprising when so many of the aesthetic choices—like all those match cuts that draw the parallel narratives together, and the plangent string motif—make such an elegant tapestry. However, a steeliness is what you might expect in a tale of revenge.
So, alone behind the gates of the LA bunker she calls home, Susan begins to read. The book is about Tony (Gyllenhaal as well), husband and father, who is on a family road trip, making his way through the desert in West Texas at night. He is forced off the road by two carloads of hoons who appear to be so malevolent that a passing police car speeds up as it passes, rather than stop for Tony trying to wave it down. In an old-model Mercedes a million miles from anywhere and beyond range of cell phone coverage, Tony and his attractive wife and daughter are exceptionally vulnerable.
I can honestly say that these scenes of hijack and abduction are some of most terrifying I have ever witnessed on screen. Ford also wrote the screenplay which is adapted from a novel of the 1990s, Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright.
Events take their inevitable course, and Tony is left utterly devastated and alone, and the investigation drags on inconclusively. The local detective (a wonderful performance from Michael Shannon) seems slow to accept his version of events, though scepticism would have served him among the folks he operated among, and then proves to be terminally ill. It begins to feel incumbent on Tony to step in. His eventual metamorphosis into pitiless avenger is one of the powerful and convincing since Dustin Hoffman became a terrifying force to be reckoned with in Straw Dogs all those years ago.
For this ultra-intense tale to work as well as it does, we have immaculate direction by Ford, and fine, measured performances from Adams and Gyllenhaal, as the two characters who matter most. Shannon and many of the West Texan yahoos are also excellent. However, others slip in and out of caricature, including Amy’s heavily overdrawn mother, a Republican dowager played by Laura Linney.
For the locations from the sterile interiors and LA to the Texan desert emptiness, director Ford also wears his fashion designer credentials on his sleeve. At the same time, he sure knows how to tell a story and has stitched the blistering tale together to form a tapestry of some power.
‘Last summer while driving at night on the interstate, I was forced off the road…’ It’s a haunting refrain from a brilliant piece of cinema. Primal terror. Beware.
Also published at Jane's blog