Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review: Nocturnal Animals

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford takes a step up as a director with his extremely dark and icy thriller "Nocturnal Animals," which tells two bleak tales simultaneously that focus on revenge, albeit different types.

Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, an emotionally reserved art gallery owner in Los Angeles, whose husband (Armie Hammer) is a businessman who pays her little attention. As the picture opens, Hammer's character is going on a trip to New York and we get the hint that he is, perhaps, not being faithful to his wife.

At the same time, a package arrives that Susan discovers contains a novel from her estranged ex-husband, Edward (Jeff Gyllenhaal), whom she spurned years before. The novel's title is "Nocturnal Animals" and the book has been dedicated to Susan, which ends up being a disturbing homage once we get into the content of the tome.

As Susan begins reading the novel, its story takes center stage as a man named Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) travels through the night in a desolate Texas locale with his wife (Isla Fischer) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). While attempting to pass a slow moving car on the highway, the driver of the other vehicle forces Tony off the road and the man driving, a sleaze ball (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and his two equally scuzzy pals torment the family. The scene is among the most intense and disturbing I've seen this year and it culminates with Taylor-Johnson and his friends kidnapping Tony's wife and daughter, leaving him alone in the desert.

Tony enlists the help of a local lawman (an excellent Michael Shannon) who has terminal cancer and has nothing to lose. When the investigation and ensuing case hit a snag, Shannon's Bobby Andes suggests to Tony that the duo engage in other methods of finding justice.

"Nocturnal Animals" tells two stories that vary in tone - the one with Adams as the gallery owner is purposefully stylish and icy, while the Texas-based thriller being told in the novel is something straight out of pulp fiction - but are equally dark and unsettling. After the story in the novel finally reaches its climax, we are left to watch the final scenes with Susan unfold and we realize that both stories are - to an extent - about characters seeking revenge. The final scene is open ended and may lead to disagreements as to what it means, but it seems pretty obvious that it ties fairly closely to Edward's intention in sending the novel to his ex-wife.

The film is visually gorgeous - from the dusty Texas scenery to the stunning overhead shots of traffic on Los Angeles highways - and the performances are all strong, especially Shannon, who also brings some much-needed humor to the proceedings. I enjoyed Ford's debut, "A Single Man," but his sophomore film is a stronger, more confident picture. It works as a tense thriller, but also as a dark commentary on human relationships. I'd highly recommend it.

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