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Nocturnal Animals (Amy Adams/Jake Gyllenhaal) - DVD Review

Nocturnal Animals

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

TOM Ford’s second film as director is an intriguing, beautifully beguiling experience that provides plenty of food for thought. But there’s also the suspicion that it’s a sadistic piece of work in beautiful dressing.

Certainly, in examining the notion of consequence, Ford poses some challenging questions. But the direction the film takes may also leave you cold emotionally. It’s a hard watch, no matter how visually arresting.

Adapted by Ford from the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, the story picks up in Los Angeles as seemingly successful gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) is contemplating the failure of her marriage to dashing husband Walker (Armie Hammer).

Out of the blue, she receives the manuscript of an unpublished novel from her first husband, Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she left heartbroken many years before. The book has been dedicated to her and Tony intends for her to read it before taking it to the publishers.

Susan does begin to read it, at which point the film itself takes you into the narrative of the novel: a brutal Texas crime thriller about a married man, whom Susan images to be Tony, on a road trip with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) that turns into a nightmare.

When Tony and his family fall foul of some local rednecks led by the psychotic Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), things turn bad quickly and Tony is left to pick up the pieces from the violence that follows. He subsequently teams up with a tough Texan lawman (Michael Shannon) to exact some form of justice or revenge.

As Susan reads on, however, she’s forced to reflect on her own life and, in particular, the manner in which she left Tony – as well as the implications her actions had for the rest of his life and her own.

Ford’s film functions on many levels but is arguably at its most effective when focusing on the narrative of the novel, during which Gyllenhaal and Shannon take centre stage for a dark crime thriller that owes more than a passing nod to the work of Cormac McCarthy.

It’s less convincing (and involving) when spending time with Susan in contemporary LA, delving into the type of stylistic world that Ford probably knew all too well as a former fashion designer. It’s a shallow world, where style trumps substance, and everything is for show. But it leaves you feeling as cold as the characters.

Ford, for his part, would probably argue that this is deliberately evocative of the LA scene he is depicting, yet it struggles to connect on anything more than a superficial level.

The thriller aspects, on the other hand, have a strong emotional pull, yet are deeply troubling given that they tackle the themes of rape, murder and revenge.

And while Ford certainly knows how to give his talented ensemble the chance to really act (much as he did with Colin Firth in A Single Man), there are also times when his own sense of style threatens to undermine all aspects of the film.

His opening shot of overweight naked dancers is a case in point: a provocative start that could just as easily alienate more people than it impresses, while somewhat confusing in what it’s trying to say or achieve. But it serves as an interesting juxtaposition for a later scene, in which the naked bodies of Tony’s wife and child are found beautifully placed at a crime scene.

In this latter case, we know that we’re watching the narrative of the book unfold from the perspective of Susan’s imagination. Hence, as an art dealer herself, there’s a certain ‘art’ to be found in her interpretation. But given the nature of the crimes, this eroticised discovery leaves a bad taste, almost cheapening the horrors that occurred. If Ford is making a statement about our own relationship to violence in art, then it’s a muddled one, especially as on the other hand he doesn’t shirk from showing the terror of Tony’s initial confrontation with his attackers.

It is moments such as these that contribute to the overall feeling of detachment that the film ultimately leaves you with. Ford doesn’t give you much to root for, in the final analysis, which leaves you feeling cold.

But that isn’t to dismiss the film entirely, especially given the power of the performances. Adams may cut an emotionally distant, often isolated figure, but she’s a compelling presence, while Gyllenhaal is typically strong and Shannon cuts a foreboding lawman. They all help the film to grip your attention throughout.

It’s just that once the dust has settled and Ford’s narrative plays out, the feeling you’re left with is one of unease and discomfort. It makes Nocturnal Animals a difficult film to ‘enjoy’, let alone recommend.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 117mins
UK Blu-ray & DVD Release: March 13, 2017

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