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A tale of fear and loathing, violence and vengeance
THE art, literary and real worlds collide in Nocturnal Animals, a movie that is an intense and disturbing combination of the grim and the glam. Desperate characters inhabit this tale of fear and loathing, violence and vengeance, directed with some style by Tom Ford, a top-tier fashion designer who is making strides as a filmmaker too - Nocturnal Animals is his sophomore effort, following an impressive debut feature (A Single Man, 2009).
The film, written by Ford and based on Austin Wright's 1993 novel Tony and Susan, effectively weaves three separate threads into a single story. An art gallery owner in Los Angeles receives a book manuscript from her ex-husband and becomes engrossed in the novel, whose primary character looks (in her mind's eye) a lot like her ex, leading her to reminisce about her relationship with him.
The pre-opening credits scene is an example of the absurdity of contemporary art: overweight women are displayed on stage, gyrating grotesquely in the near-nude (and in slow motion) as part of a performance art piece. It's LA after all, and just part of an exhibition opening in Susan Morrow's (Amy Adams) gallery, attended by blasé types who remark about the pain of living in the real world.
Left alone at home for the weekend by distracted husband Hutton (Armie Hammer), Susan starts to read a manuscript that has been sent out of the blue to her marble-and-glass mansion (and dedicated to her) by ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she hasn't seen in almost 20 years.
As she starts to read, the story grabs her attention and the characters - a family with an uncanny resemblance to her own - spring to life.
Susan enters the novel's world, stopping only when the suspense builds to a point where it's difficult for her to continue.
The book follows mild-mannered family man Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal), his wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) on a road trip to rural West Texas, where they are run off a dark road and terrorised by a trio of rednecks, led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Very bad things happen.
It's a sad, devastating tale and seemingly a world away from Susan's own. Yet, something gnaws away at her and we flashback to her long-ago relationship with Edward, which ends badly after she loses patience and confidence in his ability as a budding author. Encouraged by her pragmatic mother (Laura Linney), Susan leaves him for Hutton, who is rich and able to support her career ambitions.
Back to the book (also titled Nocturnal Animals - a reference to Susan's insomnia), Tony embarks on a payback mission, aided by Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a Stetson-wearing lawman with his own ideas about meting out rough justice. In the end, Susan discovers that life doesn't always turn out the way you intended it to. Edward's book is proof of that.
Nocturnal Animals (the film) is stylish and stylised: a sophisticated, unsettling psychological thriller that is perhaps guilty of taking itself a mite too seriously. Still, the film is well structured, blending fictional and real worlds into a seamless whole. By depicting the foibles of the art world and the harsh realities of the rural south, Ford has successfully distanced himself from both - and made a compelling revenge thriller to boot.