Nocturnal Animals, the second film from fashion designer Tom Ford, is a stylised yet substantial thriller, in which LA art gallery owner Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) world is shattered by the arrival of a dark and violent manuscript written by her ex-husband. It forces her to confront some disturbing and troubling truths.
Many have said that they would pay to see Amy Adams read the telephone directory, and this is perhaps the closest we may ever get to witnessing this. On paper, a film about a character reading a manuscript over a weekend is not entirely cinematic, but Ford takes this premise and through a series of extended flashbacks, coupled with Susan’s visualisation of her ex-husband’s words, brings the story hurtling into life.
With a trio of interconnected storylines set in the past, present and on a page, this is a potentially complicated narrative structure. However, by focusing on Susan’s point of view and through some innovative dovetailing editing, Ford ensures you always feel grounded. The viewer is forced to keep up, but you do get some help along the way.
Nocturnal Animals dropped on the same day as Arrival, and brought with it two very different performances from Amy Adams. Here she is controlled, cold and withdrawn, though still delivers a compelling performance through micro movements and expressions. As is often the case, Adams portrays so much through her eyes, which were once filled with such wonder in Arrival, but are now consumed with sadness and regret.
The coldness of Susan’s life is violently juxtaposed from within the manuscript, which is filled with immediacy, danger and depths of emotion. Jake Gyllenhaal, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber and an almost unrecognisable Aaron Taylor-Johnson leap from the pages and play out a brutal and traumatic tale of a cross-country road trip gone wrong. Here, Ford ratchets up the tension to deliberately unbearable levels and just when you can’t take any more, Michael Shannon arrives at his bug-eyed best to push you over the line.
Much like Ford’s previous 2009 film, A Single Man, it should come as no surprise that Nocturnal Animals is beautiful to look at – Ford’s detailed and distinctive eye is in abundance as he creates frames within the frame, with each scene precisely and vibrantly dressed.
This attention to detail feels akin to a quest for visual perfection, and alongside some of the coldness and aloofness of the present-day characters, has the potential to develop into early feelings of detachment to events onscreen. However, this feels like a deliberate directorial choice, perhaps designed to echo Susan’s mindset, plus it is short-lived as when events expand in the second act you will quickly find yourself dragged back in.
Nocturnal Animals is an explosive and nuanced story within a story of revenge, regret and retribution. While initially cold, the story rewards patience and by the end, Ford delivers a thrilling, satisfying and slick thriller. Come award season, Ford could well find himself, his cast and crew in contention for honours.