This electric thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams comes to us from fashion-guru-turned-director Tom Ford. Maintaining shoulder-aching tension throughout all two hours, this is possible one of the most gripping films ever made.
Adams plays Susan, a disillusioned artist, whose unhappy marriage is thrown into sharp relief with the arrival of a package from the ex-husband she left 20 years ago: a novel that he has written and dedicated to her. We see Susan go about her daily life – dealings at the art gallery, with her emotionally distant husband (Armie Hammer) – and interspersed throughout are her sleepless nights spent reading this novel, entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals’. The structuring is one of the greatest triumphs of this film.
The novel itself plays out before us, like a film within the film, but we are subject to Susan’s emotional responses. As the novel reaches a point of fear, or horror, or grief, Susan slams the book shut, and we cut back to her. A third layer of structuring is made up of flashbacks detailing Susan’s initial relationship with this ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Gyllenhaal also plays the lead character in the novel, Tony Hastings. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you need to stop writing about yourself,” Susan tells Tony in a flashback. “All anyone ever writes about is themselves,” he replies. The dual role Gyllenhaal plays is pretty self explanatory, and while it is Isla Fisher who plays Hastings’ wife in the novel, her distinctive hair undoubtedly matches Susan’s.
The complexity of experiencing this film through a kaleidoscope lens of fractured perceptions only adds to its sophisticated questioning of art and identity. We see Susan for ourselves, and we see what her mother thinks of her, and her rich artist friends, and her disinterested husband. We then also see Edward’s perspective of her, through the flashbacks, and more importantly through his novel, which manages to be entirely about her and their relationship, despite explicitly being about an awful crime committed against an innocent family. We never get a clear look at Edward either – we see him through Susan’s eyes, or through his own novelization of himself, yet it is his authorial presence which moves the characters like pawns – not just within his novel, but within the entire film.
The title of the novel upon which the film is based is telling: ‘Tony and Susan’, by Austin Wright. The two leads of the film are Susan, a woman, and Tony, a character within a book. Susan is forced to re-examine her life and her sense of identity through the characters in the book – has she really become her mother? And, more than that, she is forced to confront her former relationship with Edward, and what remnants of it may still linger.
Nocturnal Animals is full of striking imagery, controversial, and even at times repulsive. Some shock-factor moments certainly go too far, and there are scenes of explicit violence, particularly against the women, which are truly difficult to sit through. It is frustrating that there are moments as lazy as that in this so cleverly constructed story. The brutality portrayed is in fact less impactful than the fear and suspense of implied violence to come, so it would have made a tighter film to do away with some of the violence entirely.
Gyllenhaal is, as we have come to expect, absolutely phenomenal in his dual role, playing both parts with an unparalleled honesty and intensity of emotion. Adams is effortless in her chic outerwear, which she strips away like a mask when left alone with the book. The nuance of her expressions tells the story of her self-examination admirably. Special mention goes to Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays a criminal within the narrative of the novel. Unhinged at times, and terrifyingly normal at others, his deceptively easy body language and the killer glint in his eye contributes so much to keeping the audience on edge throughout the film. Michael Shannon, too, plays a brilliant supporting character: the dying police detective determined to see justice done with plenty of panache and gallows humour.
The delicacy and sophistication of Susan’s bourgeoise art-gallery lifestyle reflects the same qualities in the structuring of the film, while the blood and dirt of the Texan-set novel gets at the meat and the grit of the subject: the internal landscape of the characters. The duality constantly keeps the audience on edge, flung between a gripping, high-octane thriller and a much quieter, subtler one. A masterful feat of storytelling, let down only by its lack of restraint in its attempt to shock the audience.
by Sneh Rupra
( Featured images stills and film poster for ‘Nocturnal Animals’ courtesy of Focus Features )