By Brendan Callaghan
There’s a moment in Tom Ford’s remarkable new release Nocturnal Animals when, shifting suddenly between the two principal narratives of the film, the camera abruptly cuts to a shot of a man pointing a rifle at another man in an empty corn field. The man about to be shot looks into the camera with a twisted and unsettling grin and the audience waits with anticipation for the gun to go off. Instead, the camera zooms out and it is revealed that the scene in the corn field is actually a large print that hangs on a wall in the home of the films protagonist Susan.
This brief moment epitomises one of the principal themes of this impeccably made and engrossing new film; that is the ambiguous line it draws between fiction and reality and the curious guessing game it plays with its audience regarding the artifice or authenticity of its characters and stories.
Nocturnal Animals follows Susan, a jaded and depressed middle-aged gallery owner in LA. Susan has become disillusioned with her privileged but sterile cosmopolitan lifestyle and is becoming increasingly distant from her workaholic husband. The vacuous materialism of her life is reflected in the contemporary ‘junk’ (her word) that she passes off as art in her uber-modern gallery space and her equally austere home.
Susan is confronted with a surprising and unexpected ghost from her past when her ex-husband, whom she hasn’t spoken to in 20 years, sends her a manuscript of a novel he has written called Nocturnal Animals which is dedicated to her. When Susan first opens the manuscript she gives herself a nasty paper cut which figures as a presentment of the violence of the novel and also acts as an anticipation of the tangible affect the book will ultimately have on Susan’s life.
The action of the novel eventually supersedes the primary narrative regarding Susan’s life in LA. At this point the film begins to carefully intertwine the disparate stories and skilfully alternates between scenes from the book, scenes from Susan’s unhappy life in LA and also memories of Susan’s time with the author of the book – her ex-husband Edward.
The film manages to wonderfully balance these three narratives against each other and it becomes evident that the themes and concerns of the novel are drawn from the friction of Susan and Edward’s doomed marriage.
The tragic incident at the centre of the novel is portrayed in the film in an almost unbearably uncomfortable and unsettling way; and the subsequent story of revenge and retribution is brilliantly realised through some wonderful cinematography and two extremely compelling performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
These performances are however eclipsed by the menacing gravitas of Michael Shannon’s Detective Andes and the troubled mania of Amy Adams’ Susan; both of whom display an enigmatic quality that is impossible not to be drawn in by. Eventually Susan becomes so affected by the novel and the harsh memories that it stirs up that she can’t help but take affirmative action against the artifice and deceit of her unsatisfying life.
This is a brilliantly made and detailed film with an engaging central story that is excellently portrayed through both the skill of the director and the undeniable talent of its star-studded cast.