There’s a shot just after the opening credits of Nocturnal Animals where Amy Adams’ character is momentarily blinded by the reflection of a cars headlights as it passes through a gate and down a murky driveway. It’s a subtle clue to the audience that what they’re about see is a dark and ominous story set in a world where gloom and discomfort permeate the lives of everyone therein.
Tom Ford’s latest film is one drenched in tension and a palpable sense of dread hangs over the whole thing. Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, an art consultant who is deeply unhappy with her work and her relationship. When she receives a transcript of a book her ex-husband Edward is planning to publish she finds herself drawn to wondering about some of the choices she has made in life and the path not taken with him. Within the framework of this narrative we spiral down inside another plot; that of Edward’s novel. Titled Nocturnal Animals and mysteriously dedicated to Susan, it is a violent and subversive experience that starts to claw at Susan’s conscience and force her dredge up old feelings; to relive past mistakes.
In only his second feature length film, Tom Ford has singled himself out as a considerable talent both as a writer and behind the camera orchestrating affairs. There’s a pervasive air of anxiety throughout the film that calls to mind directors like David Lynch or Cronenberg. Ford shows a deftness in building tension and suspense and then sustaining it for extended periods of time. An extended sequence on a deserted stretch of road in the dead of night is one of the year’s most nail-biting and stressful scenes.
The characters too are all sharply realised, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s nuanced, damaged performance ranks as one of his most solid yet. He gets strong support from Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a brutal, unflinching crook and Michael Shannon as an intense and somewhat broken police officer. These men are fiercely magnetic and their shared story within the broader story is the backbone on which the overarching narrative rests.
Underpinning all of this though is a career best performance from Amy Adams, whose remorsefulness is masked behind a cold and resilient exterior. As much as she wrestles with facing up to her demons, she is also conscious of the luxury and exuberant lifestyle she might have to cast aside to do so. Her character is deeply conflicted and Adams bears that cross with a quiet strength despite the sense that her life is unravelling around her. It’s a remarkable portrayal and one which will rightly garner her attention when the annual accolades are being rolled out.
Nocturnal Animals is an exceptional, ink black story that strays across many paths without ever losing sight of its singular destination. Layered and stuffed with brilliant performances, it benefits hugely from Tom Ford’s willingness to immerse himself fully in his vision of a world where decisions have far reaching consequences and violence is a much a means to an end as dialogue is. It won’t suit everyone’s palette and those that find an appetite for it will be left with a lingering, bitter aftertaste they’ll be digesting long after the film has run its course.