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Few movies this year will be more aesthetically satisfying than Tom Ford’s TIFF-released thriller, Nocturnal Animals. Lavishly enriched with moody shades and sensual talent, the fashion designer’s second feature obtains a stranglehold on your attention from the opening sequence. Immediately, he manages to transfix you by making sexual the grotesque, by juxtaposing the obscene with the erotic. And while the overall tonality of the movie at times suffers from this heavy hand, it is overall a seductive piece that will both be seared into your memory.

The focus is on Susan Morrow, an insomniac depressive woman played with her signature sad big eyes and her characteristic aplomb by Amy Adams. Susan embodies the life of the tragic rich and famous, the kind that speaks of psycho-pharmacologists and weekends on the country while downing one too many a stiff cocktail. Caught between a loveless marriage to Walker, the expertly prim and coiffed Armie Hammer, and her realization that everything in life is absurd, Susan revisits her past to wonder what may have been. But the past is heavy with horrors of its own.

Her first marriage, to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Edward, is weighing on her mind when she unexpectedly receives a manuscript from him, containing a story entitled Nocturnal Animals. The novel’s protagonist, Tony, bears an eerie resemblance to Ed (he’s also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife is a beautiful redhead (Isla Fisher). Ed’s novel is a violently tragic—no doubt an allegory for his own failed life with Susan. While traveling on a desolate West Texas highway, he and his family are tailgated then run off the road by three menacing young strangers, with horrific results.

This messes up the already spiraling Susan even further. Is the carnage in the novel a threat? The lines between reality, dream, and memory blur and as Tony copes with what happened to him, Susan is trapped into his sorrow. His nightmares, in a sense, become her own, as if Ed is reaching across the pages to exact some sort of sick revenge of her. It’s somewhat twisted and even confusing—but purposefully so.

Indeed, there isn’t a single scene in Nocturnal Animals that does not show the guiding hand of its artistically intoned director. Every outfit is flawlessly tailored, every background is precisely colored to create a sense of urgency or exaggeration. The indoor scenes permit Ford to most flex the muscle of his master cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (behind the gorgeous camerawork of Atonement and Anna Karenina). Susan’s life is covered by a pall of dusk, clouding her every moment, and she’s entombed in a crypt of steel and glass. The scenes in the desert work as well, cruelly conveying the sense of isolation and emptiness that infects the lives of the various tragic characters in that part of the story.

Ford’s near obsession with his cast shows—Gyllenhaal and Adams are unapologetically examined up close, scrutinized for and squeezed out of every last drop of pain and emotion. Both acquit themselves marvelously, convincingly alternating between the wretched sadness that dominates their characters and the occasional youthful innocence they’re allowed to exhibit in flashbacks. Both of their beauty has never been showcased quite in this way, with the raw and visceral sadness that Ford pushes them into.

They’re supported by a group of satirical if overblown performances. Laura Linney has a delicious snarky scene as Susan’s cynical but practical mother, the one Susan is loath to but has become. Jena Malone steals a scene as her quirky assistant, and Michael Sheen is a flamboyant confidant. Best of all is Michael Shannon’s somewhat sardonic turn as the aggressive sheriff in Ed’s manuscript, the one who helps Tony deal with the tragedy that befell him.

Nocturnal Animals does not really say anything particularly insightful about the crusty society it scathes. Ford is too fixated on visuals to venture deeply into the topic. The characters and various other artistic elements times feel overwrought, transparent as attempts to shock and awe that demerit the movie’s seriousness. Ford is aware of this, and he uses the ridiculous to disclaim seriousness in life and proclaim that all humans are farcical. The self-awareness is welcome but Ford has perhaps taken himself too seriously, and the panacea is not enough to absolve his needless deviations into the puerile. Scatology isn’t art simply because we may react viscerally to it.

In his obsession with beauty, Ford also adds an aura of incredulity to what should have been a much more stomach-wrenching story. The three bandits on the Texas highway are fatuously cast as sexy young things, one of whom caught enough of the director’s eye to cause a completely unneeded, outdoor naked toilet scene by the chiseled actor. Ford clearly has a lot of talent and imagination—but restraint is the better part of valor, and a lot of it ends up feeling like an excuse to showcase hot shirtless models.

These are the sins of a sophomore director, though, one perhaps unaware of his considerable talent and too worried with the need to jolt his audience as a way to achieve memorability. It is unnecessary, his pulse for the artistic and beautiful is sufficient.

But in between these nicks and scratches lies a wonderfully entertaining and even unpredictable thriller, a simple plot with a complex aesthetic, all of which combine into a diabolically fun two hours spent nominally at the movie theater that feel as if they were spent on the runway.

Grade: B+


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About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film 'The Lost Weekend' is pure coincidence

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