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'Nocturnal Animals' Is a Riveting Cinematic Mess

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Though Tom Ford's follow-up to A Single Man derails at the end, getting there proves to be a thoroughly exhilarating experience.

Nocturnal Animals

Director: Tom Ford
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Armie Hammer, Isla Fisher, Laura Linney, Martin Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, Jena Malone, Ellie Bamber, India Menuez
Rated: R
Studio: Focus Features
Year: 2016
US Release date: 2016-11-18
UK date: 2016-10-14

Breasts: two of them, enormous, with pink, silver-dollar nipples. They swing from side to side, sagging over a belly more akin to congealed gravy than human flesh. They belong to an obese, elderly woman; she sports a ruby-shaded shako, sultry eyes, and nothing else. Then there's another woman: also heavy, but without the marching band headpiece. She wears no more clothes than the first woman. Then there's another large, naked woman. And another. For the next few minutes, this is all we see: colossal seductresses, swaying naked to a richly orchestrated score.

To say the least, the opening credit sequence of Nocturnal Animals is provocative. Unconventional sensory assaults, such as the above, pervade throughout the entirety of Tom Ford's second feature. It' thanks to this stylish approach that the fashion designer turned filmmaking auteur manages to offer a sexy, chilling, and altogether entertaining thriller that only disappoints when its muddled conclusion leaves the viewer emotionally distant.

With the help of editor Joan Sobel, Ford laces three related storylines together in order to concoct a pulpy, cinematic tale. We first meet Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), the gallery owner behind the plus-sized model exhibition. Disillusioned with her work, she unexpectedly receives a manuscript in the mail from her former husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). It's a crime novel, dedicated to her and entitled "Nocturnal Animals" as a tribute to her insomnia. After Susan's adulterous partner Hutton (Armie Hammer) leaves for New York, she delves into the manuscript, and at this point Nocturnal Animals jumps into a fictional, rural Texas to introduce Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal). The film frequently cuts back to Susan, and the more she reads of the manuscript, the more memories arise of her relationship and breakup with Edward when she was a graduate student and he was a struggling writer in their 20s. The film flashes back to these memories, as well.

While Ford bookmarks the film with Susan when she's a gallery owner, no longer a graduate student, it's this story that's the least intriguing of the three. After a few expository scenes -- in which we learn that Susan struggles to find meaning in her work, that she and Hutton are on the edge of bankruptcy, and that she lives in a stylish mansion -- very little happens. Henceforth, Susan is almost exclusively found devouring Edward's text with a troubled expression and a drink in her hand. Watching someone read and contemplate does not alone make for an active or intriguing protagonist, and Susan has so little to do otherwise, such that Ford doesn't manage to provide her character with a satisfying arc.

Thankfully, the majority of Nocturnal Animals' screen time tracks the crime story within the manuscript, in which a trio of miscreants abducts Tony's wife and daughter, (played by Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber, respectively, cast in part due to their physical likeness to Amy Adams and the actress who plays her character's daughter, India Menuez). The manuscript's story continues to play out on screen, as a distraught Tony hunts down the sadists with the help of rogue detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) in order to exact his vengeance. This storyline is perhaps given an hour of screen time, whereas the other two -- Susan reading the manuscript, and her memories of her relationship with Edward -- share the remaining 60 minutes.

Some viewers might find themselves wishing that Nocturnal Animals focused solely on Tony's riveting tale of passionate violence; Susan's mid-life crisis is dry by comparison. Yet, Ford's ambition and ability to knit together three storylines into a wildly engaging product without hiccup deserves acknowledgement. The laudable work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and composer Abel Korzeniowski aid the filmmaker in concocting a tense, fully enveloping atmosphere. The only cinematic misstep is Sobel's trigger-happy approach in the editing room; she occasionally makes cuts that feel unnecessary and challenge one's suspension of disbelief.

Just like its most thrilling storyline, the film's most noteworthy performances can also be found in the South's desolate landscape. Certain to be overlooked come awards season, Michael Shannon's performance as Detective Bobby Andes provides a wealth of comic relief that thrillers frequently lack -- recall John Goodman's turn in 10 Cloverfield Lane, then remove the suspenseful questioning of his character's honesty, and you'll get a sense of the quality of Shannon's acting, here. While his character's arc, like much of the rest of the film, fizzles at the finale, this is only minimally problematic upon reflection because Shannon is so absorbing throughout.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson manages perhaps his best performance to date as Ray Marcus, the perverse leader of the gang of criminals who attack Tony's family. With his sinister gaze and grin partially hidden beneath long, greasy locks, he conveys enough character quirks -- such as evidencing his plumbing skills by rigging a toilet to his front porch -- to ensure a believable, unpredictable, villain. This is commendable acting, considering that he's most frequently acknowledged as the protagonist in Matthew Vaughn's 2010 film, Kick-Ass.

Adams and Gyllenhaal are both serviceable in their roles. Adams' character is so passive that she has very little work to do beyond look troubled, while Gyllenhaal overextends his dramatic touch at times with emotional, but not wholly convincing, breakdowns. They certainly have less material from which to work than the script provided for Shannon and Taylor-Johnson, and thus the two leads create less memorable characters.

Looking for a holistic emotional takeaway is a mistake here, but Ford sprinkles liberal-leaning social commentary throughout, and it is here that his work feels rather poignant. The first indication of such is, of course, the title sequence, which clearly questions our definition of beauty; but the overweight women also represent the bottomless gluttony of self-centered, well-off artists who create superficial worlds for themselves. One of Susan's friends (played by Michael Sheen in a brief cameo) reminds us of such when he tells her at a dinner party that the world they live in is "not real".

Other instances of social commentary include a brief cameo from Jena Malone. As one of Susan's employees, she shows her boss a smart phone application that is a high-tech baby monitor through which she can communicate with her newborn. The recent late-night novel reading forces Susan to see a horrifying mirage of one of the crime story's antagonists on the screen, and she drops the phone. The phone breaks, but Malone simply shrugs it off. "The new one comes out next week," she states, in an attempt to dismiss the materialism that so defines our modern culture. Ford doesn't fear politics, either, evidenced when he includes a shot of a painting hanging in Susan's house, in which an American vigilante aims a rifle at a Hispanic man in the desert. The former breaks the piece's fourth wall with a charming smile, as a reminder that most immigrants happily relocate to America optimistically in search of a better life.

By the end credits, Nocturnal Animals feels well worth the ride, even if it runs out of track in its final few minutes. It's far from perfect, but also hardly needs to be in order to provide an intoxicating cinematic experience.


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