Nocturnal Animals

I’m still thinking about this film. Partly about the images, partly about the story, and partly about how much I liked it. I did like it, that’s for sure, but I’m not quite sure how much.

It looks beautiful. Every shot is framed to perfection, most obviously in the present day life of Amy Adams and her sterile home and work settings. Here the colour palette is cool, natural, with just the occasional splash of purposeful red. As she begins to read the proof copy of her ex-husband’s novel, the visualisation of this imaginary story is first at night, then filled with the warm yellow tones of the West Texas sun. The difference is so striking that it’s almost as if director Tom Ford has shot two separate films, they’re so far apart in tone. All the emotion and intensity seems to have seeped out of reality and into the fantasy as seen by Adams’ Susan as she reads.

And the story which she is reading is brutal – a word which Susan uses herself to describe the way she ended her first marriage to the story’s author. The opening road rage incident and its aftermath are incredibly tense and actually uncomfortable to watch (thanks largely to a really sleazy Aaron Taylor-Johnson) – and from this point on, images, colours, words cross-over and appear in both strands of the storyline. Occasionally this is a little clunky (a slogan on a painting, for example) but in general it’s clear that these links are signs of Susan being emotionally pulled back into an earlier stage of her life, shared with the story’s author Edward, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Gyllenhaal also plays the victimised then vengeful husband in Susan’s imagining of the book’s narrative and is on top form, matched by a highly intimidating Michael Shannon in full-on craggy law-enforcement mode. I’m also going to take time here to mention Armie Hammer. The guy needs to be given something proper to do. Yes he’s been charming and funny in the past, but here, with very limited screen time, we get to see just how good he can be.

While I’m still figuring out exactly how I feel about the film, there were a couple of things which jarred. One was the opening sequence. I’ve read about the reasons Ford felt the need to include these images, but I think he was mistaken in his decision, or perhaps even slightly deluding himself. Regardless of how the people on screen felt during the opening credits, several people around me (mostly men) were laughing very unkindly and unsympathetically. Whatever Ford thought he was doing, it certainly wasn’t happening where I was. I’m also not totally convinced by the flashback sequences. We’re supposed to be looking back 20 years, yet our protagonists only look different because Amy Adams has her hair parted in the middle. I found myself having to work too hard to make these scenes slot in to place.

My final gripe is trivial, but very real. Amy Adams makes great play of putting on a huge pair of glasses as she settles down to real a large proof version of the book in question. Yet later on she’s woken by a text message in the middle of the night and can read it without groping for her glasses? As a spectacles-wearer this just wouldn’t happen. Trust me.

In this his second feature, Ford is attempting to explore a pervasive ‘wanting-it-all’ mentality where greed and desire result in unhappiness and dissatisfaction; even when we have everything we could possibly imagine, it’s not enough.

I’ve heard the criticism that this film is style over substance. I disagree. There is definite substance there, but perhaps it’s just that the style gets in the way once too often. I definitely think this film warrants multiple viewings, and I’ll be doing just that.

A version of this review first appeared on http://www.filmdispenser.com

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