Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"Nocturnal Animals"

 4.5 / 5 

There is something roiling under the calm, sleek surface of Nocturnal Animals, the second film from fashion designer Tom Ford.  Like his first film, the exquisitely painful A Single Man, the polished veneer hides real pain -- but Ford gets at it quite differently this time, offering up a complex, puzzling thriller that, both thematically and stylistically, invites and mostly lives up to comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock.

Ford begins Nocturnal Animals with a baffling, uncomfortable but mesmerizing scene: Overweight women, completely naked, dance in slow motion to a lush symphonic score.  The dancing women, it turns out, are part of an art installation overseen by the decidedly not overweight Susan, a distant and unhappy woman who lives in a Hollywood Hills mansion run by servants and drivers and who seems still dissatisfied.

Icy, impenetrable and surrounded by excessive luxury, she is a quintessentially Hitchcockian female, except here she is the lead, or at least it seems as the film begins.  Perfectly groomed, perfectly poised, Susan is so pampered that when a mysterious paper-wrapped package arrives on her desk one morning and she cuts her finger opening it, she can't continue -- she calls over one of her servants and tells him to finish the task and to read aloud the letter that comes with it.

It's the galley of a novel written by her ex-husband, a man she hasn't seen in 20 years.  He has dedicated the novel to her.  The unexpected arrival rattles Susan but almost no one around her, least of all her strapping, chiseled current husband (Armie Hammer), whose financial -- and other -- proclivities are threatening their livelihood.

While he travels (and cheats), Susan begins to read the novel, also called Nocturnal Animals.  She knows the meaning of the title: She's never been one to sleep.  But as the novel's story consumes her, she drifts further into insomnia -- and into memory.

Nocturnal Animals tells Susan's story, both in the past and in the present, as her ex-turned-author Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) falls in love with her -- perhaps a bit too deeply -- but also dramatizes the novel.  It's a dark, violent, brutal tale of torture, rape, murder and revenge.  Gyllenhaal, whose puppy-dog face is used to its fullest extent in the flashbacks of Susan and Edward, takes on a completely different persona in the story-within-a-story.

In this version of Nocturnal Animals, he's Tony, a doting West Texas husband and father who wants to takes his wife and daughter on a camping trip to Marfa but crosses paths with some sadistic hoodlums, including the seriously unhinged Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).  Left for dead in the forlorn desert -- whose wild uncertainty stands in stark contrast to the visually perfect world in which Susan moves -- Tony escapes and finds himself paired with a drawling Texas detective (Michael Shannon) who has an extraordinarily strong sense of justice.

As they hunt down the murderers and thugs, Noctural Animals spins an engrossing crime story that seems to have little to do with Susan -- and she takes the story at face value, and takes the opportunity to reach out to Edward for the first time in decades.

Ford, who also wrote the screenplay (adapted from Austin Wright's novel), never strains to directly connect the two stories, but spends most of its time in Susan's mind, revealing her vision of the way Tony's story plays out while digging into her memory to explore the dissolution of her relationship with Edward.

Through it all, Ford never loses his sense of pacing or, unsurprisingly, style.  He doesn't try quite as hard to be visually sumptuous as he did in his first film, but that's not to say the scenes aren't exquisite.  He has a rare ability to convey difficult, distant emotions through film: loneliness, fear and disconnection are everywhere in Nocturnal Animals -- but it's not a distant film.  It's visceral and expertly calculated; it takes time to build, then release, considerable suspense.  At least twice, the audience I was with audibly gasped at plot developments, and I was right there with them.

Of immeasurable aid to Ford's vision are startling central performances by Adams, Gyllenhaal and, particularly, Shannon, who creates what I suspect will go down as one of the all-time great character roles.  If he's a standout, Adams and Gyllenhaal are no less noteworthy as the film offers multiple perspectives on Susan, Edward and his fictional surrogate Tony.  Gyllenhaal's ability to move from sweetness to rage is astonishing, and Adams finds a sincere, honest depth to Susan, which is enhanced by a single memorable scene with Laura Linney as Susan's socialite mother.  She's on screen for perhaps five minutes, but Linney leaves an indelible impression.

So, too, does the film.  There aren't many filmmakers with the precision, style and skill that Ford showcases here.  He's done the near impossible, something usually left for such rarefied names as Hitchcock, Kubrick and Scorsese: Nocturnal Animals explores rich, deep cinematic and literary themes that are clearly well considered.  It's a film worthy of study and examination.  Yet, despite the seriousness of its both its intention and its execution, Nocturnal Animals never fails to be the one thing a thriller should be -- thrilling.

Viewed Nov. 9, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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