Art Imitates Life in Serpentine Psychological Thriller

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Published December 7, 2016
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The Montclarion
Photo courtesy of Nocturnal Animals/Fade to Black
Photo courtesy of Nocturnal Animals/Fade to Black

Photo courtesy of Nocturnal Animals/Fade to Black

In September 2009, world-renowned fashion designer Tom Ford made his directorial debut with the Academy Award–nominated drama “A Single Man,” which went on to win the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film – Wide Release and the Venice International Film Festival’s Queer Lion Award.

More than seven years later, Ford tried to recreate his past success with “Nocturnal Animals,” a tantalizing yet toxic cautionary tale that mostly succeeds in making viewers think long and hard about the consequences of their life choices.

Based on the 1993 Austin Wright novel “Tony and Susan,” the film stars Amy Adams as Susan Morrow, a successful art gallery owner who is disillusioned with the superficial world in which she lives in. After receiving the manuscript for a soon-to-be-published crime novel written by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Susan is immediately drawn into the world of the story—which revolves around a family man’s quest to avenge the brutal rape and murder of his wife and teenage daughter—and soon finds herself forced to relive the mistakes she made.

While its numerous twists and turns leave the audience in constant suspense, “Nocturnal Animals” is hindered by an almost incoherent narrative. The script, which was penned by Ford, attempts to weave together three separate storylines: the present-day events, the events of the story-within-the-story and the events surrounding Susan’s relationship with Edward. Unfortunately, Ford spends too much time cutting back and forth between them, disrupting the flow of the narrative to the point where it becomes difficult for viewers to become fully invested.

Furthermore, the final act leaves viewers with more questions than answers, making it feel as though Ford didn’t take the time to consider what audiences would think once they left the theatre. But despite this, Ford creates an atmosphere that, when combined with the cast’s layered performances, leaves the audience gripping their seats from start to finish.

Adams, who recently starred in Denis Villeneuve’s critically acclaimed science-fiction film “Arrival,” brilliantly depicts a guilt-ravaged woman who struggles to overcome the guilt she has felt for most of her life. She gives such a naturalistic performance that it often feels like the audience is literally following in Susan’s footsteps.

Gyllenhaal’s dual performance as Edward and Tony Hastings, the story-within-the-story’s main protagonist, is perhaps the best performance of his career. It is not easy for one actor to portray two completely different characters, but Gyllenhaal proves he is up to the task by allowing everything he says or does to be done with a definite vulnerability that makes viewers feel for both characters.

Rounding out the main cast are Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, both of whom portray characters in Edward’s novel. Shannon is impressive as as Bobby Andes, a grizzled detective whose enigmatic motives for helping Tony leaves the audience desperate to know more, while Taylor-Johnson steals the show as Ray, the novel’s psychopathic primary antagonist who is nothing short of vile.

Incoherence aside, “Nocturnal Animals” is an appealing film that reminds this reviewer of an exotic plant: beautiful to look at but dangerous to touch.

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