NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (USA/UK 2016) ***1/2
Director: Tom Ford
Writers: Tom Ford (screenplay), Austin Wright (based on the novel “Tony and Susan” by)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon
Review by Gilbert Seah
Fashion designer Tom Ford’s second film after his successful acclaimed A SINGLE MAN is by no means a perfect film, but Ford is a director who can command an audience’s attention. Made up of a number of serious set-pieces, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is a handsome mounted production, sleek and chic like Tom Ford’s designs.
The protagonist of the piece is a successful Los Angeles arts gallery owner and designer by the name of Susan (Amy Adams). Susan often has sleepless nights and could thus be classified as a nocturnal animal. Her ex-husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) has recently completed a book titled NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, about three redneck thugs who prey on a family after carjacking them. Tony sends Susan a copy of his manuscript to read as a privileged reader.
There are dual narratives in the film as there are dual universes – the real and the art worlds. The art world is the one Susan is successful in and the real is comprised of her failed marriages – the first to her ex-husband Tony who she never supported and the second being her present marriage. Susan is currently in a loveless relationship with a prick of a doctor husband (Armie Hammer) – as handsome as he is deceitful. As Susan reads Tony’s manuscript the film shifts to the terrorized family of a teacher (also portrayed by Gyllenhaal) whose wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter have been raped and murdered by three thugs. As the story reaches different shock pieces, Susan is jolted from reading of the book as the audience is shifted between Susan’s and the teacher’s world.
Ford’s film has the feel of a David Lynch film – like MULHOLLAND DRIVE and BLUE VELVET, though it never reaches those mesmerizing levels. As in Lynch’s two films, the protagonist is landed in a strange new world of darkness. The blackness of night and the grainy lights, as seen from the headlights of the vehicles in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS effectively create the atmosphere of unknown menace.
In NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, the topic of redemption takes centre stage. First is Susan’s redemption, as she tries her best to make her present marriage work despite her husband’s non-effort. Secondly, the teacher feels guilty when his wife and daughter are murdered and desires revenge. Ford shows the audience right away the man’s thought in a painting in Susan’s gallery with the word REVENGE painted boldly on canvas – a rare scene in which both worlds merge. The revenge is finally exacted when the teacher finally loses it, as demonstrated in the only scene with Gyllenhaal screaming his guts out. The best performance in the film belongs to Michael Shannon who plays the disgruntled police officer assigned to the case. Suffering from lung cancer, he has nothing to lose in wanting to bring the criminals to justice regardless the consequences. The film picks up whenever his character is on screen with him coughing up the scenery.
But the story in the manuscript turns out more exciting and absorbing than Susan’s story, thus eclipsing the more important narrative. But Ford’s film is not without his indulgent pleasures, like his stunning opening sequence in Susan’s art gallery where four older obese women dance in the nude with sparklers. The sequence emphasizes the irrelevance of the art world on the real world and vice versa.
The company formed for the film’s production is called “Fade to Black”, the camera technique that closes the film. Intriguing but not always as clever as it ought to be, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is still a pleasurable and absorbing watch, by any standard.
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