Movie Review: ‘NOCTURNAL ANIMALS’ – a dark thriller that blurs the lines of truth

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James Cole Clay // Film Critic

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
Rated R, 117 min.
Director: Tom Ford
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael ShannonAaron Taylor-JohnsonIsla FisherEllie BamberArmie HammerKarl GlusmanRobert AramayoLaura LinneyAndrea Riseborough and Michael Sheen

To analyze fashion designer/film director Tom Ford’s second feature NOCTURNAL ANIMALS would result in 2,000 words on the definition of how beauty can challenge masculinity. Ford (A SINGLE MAN) is chiefly a visual stylist whose brand not only embodies sexy for both men and women, but has now extended into the cerebral.

This is by no means a cookie cutter thriller. Those who can get on Ford’s wavelength will revel in the fact that he has more on his mind as a filmmaker than turning his actors into mannequins. While certainly divisive, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is a cynical look at love and the price of revenge.

We are introduced to Susan (Amy Adams at a career high-mark), a successful art gallery owner who lives the socialite’s life with her philandering second husband Hutton (Armie Hammer, who is really showing his range after appearing in THE BIRTH OF A NATION). On the outside, they’re a materially wealthy couple, but have become emotionally bankrupt.

Hutton heads off on a business trip, but Susan receives a manuscript titled “Nocturnal Animals,” written by her first love Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), to keep her company. She’s consumed with the guilt of her past, she laments about how she left Edward in a cruel way. But in short, she felt as though he was weak and she longed for somebody stronger.

Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) retraces his steps, with Texas lawman Bobby Andes (Shannon) in tow. Courtesy of Focus Features.

Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) retraces his steps, with Texas lawman Bobby Andes (Shannon) in tow. Courtesy of Focus Features.

The novel tells the story of Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), a man out for vengeance on the desolate highways of West Texas. He’s heading to a Summer home with his wife and daughter (Isla Fisher and Elle Bamber) during a late night drive across the desert. After a bout of road rage, the family is terrorized by three local banditos (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo) with some serious masculinity issues.

As the novel plays out on screen, the horror comes alive in Susan’s mind bringing up dark emotions from the past: sadness about the present and fear for the future. As Ford weaves the two stories, the line between reality and fiction is clear, yet hidden truths about Edward and Susan’s past are buried within the novel’s pages.

The film comes loaded with scene-stealing performances from every prominent player Ford and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey capture on camera. Michael Shannon (99 HOMES) plays Bobby Andes, a dry-witted detective enlisted by Tony. It’s about time for Shannon to get some serious awards consideration for a role, and this just may be his ticket.

However, Taylor-Johnson is this year’s most frightening villain, embodying male entitlement. He’s typically working against Gyllenhaal, and they pick at each other like a pair of scabs that quickly turn infected.

Shannon, Taylor-Johnson and Gyllenhaal all get moments to wax-poetic on Ford’s dialogue, yet it’s Adams who gets the most difficult job of all– who is shot in closeups, giving out expressions of devastation with each turn of the page.

The theme of beauty is where Ford, the fashion designer, and Ford, the filmmaker, collide brilliantly. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is a nasty story filled with sex, murder, revenge and some of the most deplorable things one human can do to another. On the other hand, the film also finds beauty, making it impossible to look away.

Ford has made a living out of making people look attractive, but here, he fights against that instinct by having pretty people do disgusting things. He is questioning the meaning of beauty by tarnishing the very thing that made his career so successful.

While some may find the film to be cold could indeed miss the point, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is an exceptional piece of work. Ford’s film adeptly serves as a cautionary tale for the disgusting sides of human nature. This is easily one of the year’s best. So, just sit back and let the glamour wash over you.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS opens in limited release on Friday (11/18).
Dallas: AMC Northpark, Magnolia Theatre and the Angelika Film Center in Plano.