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TIFF Review: Nocturnal Animals -“Visuals will all at once haunt and test you”

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50805_AA_4609_v2F Academy Award nominee Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow in writer/director Tom Ford’s romantic thriller NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

The opening frames of Nocturnal Animals feature a sequence of women dancing, quite naked, in majorette hats, pom-poms and glitter flying as we see in slow motion every trace of cellulite, wrinkle, jiggle, and bounce.  You may ask yourself why, and it does tie into the story, but it creates that first initial visceral reaction that carries through the rest of the film.

Those naked figures are revealed to be part of an art gallery opening, curated by Susan (Amy Adams).  Looking polished and overembellished on the outside, she looks, as may be appropriate considering the director, like she just stepped out of a fashion magazine, as does everyone else in her world.  She lives in a big, beautiful home in Los Angeles with her incredibly handsome husband (played by Armie Hammer), who we find out needs his latest business deal for fear they are going broke.  As Susan explains to her friend at a party, she feels guilty for not being happy.  She has everything.  At least on the outside.

When a package arrives for her, however, her world is somewhat turned upside down.  It contains within it a book written by her former husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).  It’s different than anything he wrote when they were together – dark, suspenseful, incredibly violent and gritty – not at all like their life had been.

It’s here where director Tom Ford starts to weave together Susan’s present, her and Edward’s past and the novel, a terrifying thriller chronicalling a family who are assaulted at the side of the road.  The father (Gyllenhaal again) is lead into the desert and left for dead with his wife (Isla Fisher, possibly cast because of her likeness to Adams?) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) kidnapped by the leader (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) of the violent trio.  As Susan turns the pages of the book she is lead deeper into the darkness and the investigation of the devastating crime by the character Bobby (Michael Shannon).  The parallels between all the storylines start to take shape.

Ford manages to braid all these narratives together with great precision and effect, switching course at just the right time to increase the ever mounting tension. Besides the performances he manages to bring out in his actors, this is the single most impressive feat for this film.

So let’s talk about those performances then.  There isn’t a bad one in the bunch, but to pick and choose the best look at the supporting players here.  Taylor-Johnson is nightmare inducing as the leader of the gang.  When he is later confronted in the film by Bobby a flicker of his eye (an effective use of close up) tells you his terrifying intent as he changes expression from denial of his crime to distinct understanding and pleasure.  It’s a moment that gives you goosebumps and certainly stands out.

Michael Shannon also is a scene stealer here, and provides the only moments of (slight) comedic relief.  Dressed almost like a ‘good-guy’ parody in white cowboy hat he is, as ever, a menacing figure, yet welcome presence here.

However, as mentioned, there isn’t a bad performance to be had.  Adams is great (though her performance in her other festival offering Arrival is arguably better – read my review) and Gyllenhaal is emotionally stirring.  Small cameos by Michael Sheen and Laura Linney are memorable, even though screen time is incredibly short.  That they stand out just proves the power of their acting.

Tom Ford, whose 2009 debut feature A Single Man garnered awards praise, has certainly created an effective thriller here.  The present day backdrop of the art world is somewhat absurdly projected, though I feel that to be purposeful.  It is perfect for the director.  His designer mentality is allowed to thrive. It allows him to create his colourful, spectacular visuals and make them fit.  For Ford, there is beauty even in death.  Each actor is perfectly positioned like a portrait, an instance in time he wishes to preserve and protect.  Yet, that control never feels like it strangles the film.  It adds to the tension, that amount of perfection.

Nocturnal Animals is a story of guilt, of regret, of revenge. It’s one of those films that stays with you – whose visuals will all at once haunt and test you.  It pulls into question the decisions we make and how they affect those around us.  As Susan asks one of her assistants in the film, “Do you ever feel your life has turned into something you never intended?”  Clearly this film is EXACTLY how Ford intended, and here’s hoping we don’t wait seven years for his next.

4.5-out-of-5

Check out all of our TIFF coverage.

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