Masterfully unsettling ‘Nocturnal Animals’ really gets under your skin
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhall, Michael Shannon & Armie Hammer
Directed by Tom Ford
Wide release Dec. 9
Have you ever read a book that really got to you, got under you skin and burrowed into your head?
Well, the book Amy Adams’ character devours sure does that to her in Nocturnal Animals, a chilling, neo-noir psychological thriller that explores the fine lines between love and brutality, art and life, regret and revenge, and having it all and losing everything.
Based on a 1990s novel and adapted for the screen, directed and co-produced by Tom Ford, the chi-chi clothing designer who was once the fashion director for Gucci and Saint Laurent, the film begins when Susan Morrow (Adams), a wealthy but unhappy owner of a tony L.A. art gallery, receives a package in the mail. It’s the manuscript for a novel from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhall).
Tellingly, Susan gets a paper cut on her finger opening the parcel, drawing blood.
As Susan begins to read the manuscript—titled Nocturnal Animals—the movie quickly takes its basic shape: a story within a story, cutting back and forth between the events of the book and Susan’s reactions to it. There’s a third storyline, as well, about Susan’s flashbacks to her previous life with Edward, whom she met as a college student more than a decade ago, and whom her parents implored her not to marry.
Edward’s book is about a young family—a couple and their daughter—who run afoul of two carloads of brutish men on a dark West Texas highway one fateful night. For the father (also played by Gyllenhall), it becomes a quest of justice that turns to vengeance.
The movie gradually reveals how all three stories interweave and intersect, why Susan is so deeply interested in the tale, why things went south between her and Edward, what all that has to do with Edward’s book—and why he sent it to Susan.
The movie looks arty and often gorgeous; you can tell the director—whose resume also includes the critically acclaimed A Single Man (2009)—comes from world of high fashion. But this isn’t a happy, uplifting tale. A Hitchcock-ian sense of malice and dread pervades every scene, swept along by the haunting classical score by composer Abel Korzeniowski. Award-winning cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Anna Karenina, Atonement) depicts Los Angeles as a chilly, post-modernist fortress of sharp, cold steel edges and soulless night; Texas is a harsh, merciless wasteland of tumbleweeds, sun and grit.
Naked corpses dissolve into a shot of nude, intertwined bodies of sleeping lovers. There are visual clues of distress and malaise everywhere, from the dead bird Susan discovers outside her window to the grotesque, disturbing “contemporary” exhibits in her museum—naked, obese, slow-motion baton twirlers; a life-size sculpture of a bison, punctured with arrows; an oversize, ominous-looking photo of a man in a field pointing a rifle at another man, point-blank, execution-style.
Think No Country For Old Men meets CSI: West Texas, by way of Twin Peaks.
Gyllenhall gives (another) great performance; he’s essentially playing two different roles. Michael Shannon, who adds a live-wire spark to anything in which he appears, gets one of his best supporting roles yet as Det. Bobby Andes, who’s assigned to the fictional case but willing to bend the rules when time begins running out. Armie Hammer plays Susan’s philandering second husband. Laura Linney has only one scene, as Susan’s Texas socialite mom, but it’s pivotal.
Edward dedicates his book to Susan and titles it after his nickname for her—a night owl who had trouble sleeping. After seeing the impressively crafted but intentionally haunting Nocturnal Animals, you might have a bit of trouble dozing off for the next few evenings, too.
—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine