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Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Nocturnal Animals follows Susan Morrow, a successful art gallery owner struggling for emotional and creative satisfaction in her life. Suddenly, she receives the manuscript for a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward; a violent tale of murder, revenge and the darkest moral questions. As she moves through the book, she finds herself looking back on her past and her relationship with Edward, desperately seeing symbolic associations and perceived attacks within the dark tones of his tale, leading to her malaise reaching a level of crisis as she seeks catharsis for her past transgressions.

Like his debut, A Single Man, Ford’s visual universe is utterly seductive. But it’s not all about obvious beauty; each pristine vision holds a trace of haunted suggestion, as if Ford wishes to peel away at the veneer of perfection that defines Susan and her hollow world, reflecting the exact same way Edward’s tale cuts into her mind and heart also. In taking on this multi narrative labyrinth of style and genre trappings, Ford rises to the challenge by embracing the opportunities to use his keen aesthetic intuition to truly express the interlinked and evocative parallels between the realities at work, and furthermore place the audience utterly in the imagination of Susan herself, serving to tether us to her psychological and emotional turmoil. At once you have the cool, precise but barren world of Susan, devoid of passion, both in terms of love and danger; and then the world of Edward’s Nocturnal Animals: A sprawl of impulses, crude, raw and inelegant in every way Susan’s is cut like the shimmering perfection of a diamond. Each is beautifully rendered by Ford and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and in their utter opposition, create an initial contrast that, crucially blend as the suppressed truths and traumas of the past are revealed to the audience, and the overwhelming sensations that define Edward’s novel (revenge, desire, sex, brutality and death) are spilled out in this grander context. In particular, the slow cross fades between Tony in the novel, and Susan in the film’s reality, are an exceptionally simple but delightfully playful expression of the relationship between the psychologies at play:  Susan, Tony, Edward and Audience. In this collision, the film’s labyrinth serves not to find a solution, but immerse in the morally turgid waters of repressed guilt and violence, as something horrifying and mesmeric in its tangible beauty. A Single Man may be superior as a work of art, but as a piece of directorial craft, Nocturnal Animals truly presents Tom Ford stepping up to the highest levels of auteur skill. This marriage of effortless style and psychological depth extends to Abel Korzeniowski’s sublime soundtrack, which brings a clash of wrought strings and lithe beauty, a mesh of the delicate and the dark that seems to directly channel the work of Bernard Herrmann, in particular his score for Vertigo, reflecting its romantic but sinister sensibility. Such an act of assimilation with such referential power only serves to reinforce the confidence and class the entire film exudes.

Furthermore, it is crucial to note the importance of the performances at the heart of the film in terms of enhancing Ford’s tremendous vision, in particular in relation to Amy Adams. In the central role of Susan Morrow, Adams exquisitely captures the careful layers of this complex character, able to hold an exterior impression of glacial elegance and detachment, while never letting the glimmer of a flickering flame of desperate emotion and desire extinguish, burning ever brighter as she absorbs the heat and depravity of Edward’s pulp thriller, triggering impulses of the past, that scratch at the edges of her performance. It would have been easy to play to the melodramatic potential of such a role and lean towards excess, but the amount of control she exerts over every element of her performance, from subtle body language to the delivery of her lines through ever shifting cracks in her façade, serves to embolden her character and highlight the quietly exceptional performer Adams has become. It may sound trite to draw on Ford’s talent as a fashion designer, but I feel personally that his particular use of his central character in Nocturnal Animals draws on the way a designer would present a model on the catwalk; manipulated and cloaked in the trappings of his imagination, but symbolically imbuing them with the essential complexity to bring them to life. The relationship between Adams as performer and Ford is a perfect synthesis, and truly exceptional to behold. The greatest surprise of the film is unquestionably Aaron Taylor Johnson, as the villainous Ray Marcus. Quite simply, Johnson is a revelation; he delivers a ferocious and snarling performance whose energy and deliberate embrace of the banal ignites the film with an almost charismatic enigma. He is repulsive, but absolutely fascinating to behold in a way that villains in contemporary cinema are seemingly sadly lacking in.

A work of fearsome precision, using style and genre trappings to ensnare the audience in the layers of mystery and representation, Nocturnal Animals is both a gut punch and an intellectual dagger, eloquently delivered through a masterful entwining of performance, direction and narrative, into a captivating work of suspenseful noir and sensational drama.

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Matthew Hammond

The author Matthew Hammond