Friday, December 9, 2016

'Nocturnal Animals' review

Note: This is a re-publication of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Nocturnal Animals opens in theaters nationwide today.

"Nobody gets away with what you did. Nobody."

This is the line that caps off the first trailer for Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, which hit the internet a few weeks ago to the delight of film fans everywhere. It's a line that teases an exciting, vicious revenge movie, one that will pit Amy Adams against Jake Gyllenhaal in a battle of strength. In reality, Nocturnal Animals offers a different kind of battle. It's a psychological revenge thriller if you will, a movie about the great lengths one will reach to enact vengeance on those who wronged them. It's a movie about how people can never let go of what has happened to them. It's about mistakes, greed, selfishness, and the nagging regret of years gone by. Ultimately, it's a movie about how we can never, ever escape the past. We will never be able to run away from what we've done.

But most importantly, Nocturnal Animals is a movie. It is pure cinema in just about every way, a sensational blend of genres, visual styles, and musical cues. It's a cross between Hitchcock, Lynch, and the Coens, a pulpy thriller blended with a juicy fashion drama. The music is a unique mix of Hermann and a James Bond score, the cinematography is both sun-baked and darkly glitzy, and the plot is like an endlessly fascinating puzzle. Nocturnal Animals is just such a blast. Oh, and did I forget to mention the performances? Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are all magnetic here, showcasing their talents in one of the best movies of the year. Delicious, rich, and completely engrossing, Nocturnal Animals is a jaw-dropping thriller that doubles as a provocative, disturbing work of art.

Set in the modern art world of Los Angeles, Nocturnal Animals tells the story of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a gallery owner who finds herself in a hole of boredom and regret. She's married to the handsome, but shallow Hutton (Armie Hammer), and spends most of her day wandering aimlessly around her cold, vapid world. One day, she receives a manuscript in the mail from Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), her ex-husband from many years ago. Susan hasn't heard from Edward in a long time, despite thinking about him often. Late at night, she opens the manuscript and begins reading his new novel, which is entitled "Nocturnal Animals." What she finds inside shocks and disturbs her to her core.

Edward's writing had always been autobiographical in tone, and she often chastised him for that fact, saying that his style would prevent his success. His latest work is not that. At this point in the story, the action turns to the book-inside-the-movie, where Gyllenhaal also plays Tony Hastings, the protagonist of Edward's book. Tony and his family (played by Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber) are on a late-night road trip through Texas when disaster suddenly strikes. They begin to engage a mysterious car in an increasingly dangerous chase before they're run off the road. Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is the man behind the wheel, and he's as deranged and unhinged as they come. After a brutal kidnapping and murder, Tony is left to search for answers with the help of an ailing sheriff (Michael Shannon). With nothing left to lose, Tony begins his quest for the ultimate revenge.

Why is Edward's latest work so violent? Is this about something that happened in their past? Is
"Nocturnal Animals" Tony's greatest act of revenge? What did Susan do to him? As the swirling, multi-layered plot is broken down, these disturbing answers will all be revealed.

Tom Ford is both a fashion designer and a filmmaker, and while many other people in various fields have failed in an attempt to transfer their talents to the big screen, Ford has been remarkably successful thus far. A Single Man received critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for Colin Firth, and if there's any justice in the world, Nocturnal Animals will receive the same kind of Academy adoration. With his violent, delightfully crazy follow-up, Ford proves himself to be an impeccable visual stylist and a keen observer of characters and emotions. Each frame of this film is unbelievably gorgeous, and when I listened to Ford discuss the cinematic choices during the post screening Q&A, it was immediately clear that he had a vision for this movie that he was determined to put on the screen.

But I don't think that Nocturnal Animals is an example of style over substance. I've seen a lot of people seemingly rejecting this film as an exercise in flashy, empty design, and I just don't think that's the case. Nocturnal Animals is too rich, too layered, and too gripping to dismiss. It's the kind of movie that you want to dive headfirst into and watch over and over, obsessing over the plot intricacies and themes. In fact, my first reaction after I left the theater was "I need to watch this again." There's so much going on in Ford's film that one viewing just won't suffice. With his experiment in strange Hitchcockian suspense/horror, Ford has created a movie that works as meta revenge thriller, something I don't think we've ever really seen before. Nocturnal Animals is about the lengths we go to in real life to enact our revenge, but it also features one of the best cinematic revenge thrillers I've seen in a long time. It's a strange, mesmerizing twist on the genre that works like a charm. It's a hurricane of goodness and I sat back in awe for most of this film.

Ford has assembled quite the cast for this movie, and he has given them such meaty, savory material to work with. Amy Adams probably has less screen time than some of the supporting characters, but her Susan Morrow is definitely the focal point of the movie. Adams is one of the best actresses alive, and she continually reinvents herself with each new performance. Her turn in Nocturnal Animals is unlike anything I've seen from her before- a contemplative, quiet, pained performance. Susan Morrow is restless, melancholy, and maybe even remorseful. She's haunted by what she's done, and she might even believe that she deserves Edward's wrath. The fact that Adams is able to convey all of this without even saying a word is so incredibly impressive. Ford described Susan's world as "cold" in the Q&A, and the same could be described for her character, which Adams plays to absolute perfection.

Unfortunately for Adams, her relatively muted performance is overshadowed by the other actors in the cast, specifically in the Texas-based plot. Jake Gyllenhaal is magnificent as always in his dual performance, playing Tony and Edward with brilliant energy and anger. Nobody plays crazy quite like Gyllenhaal, but he also has an uncanny ability for playing likable characters that the audience can relate to, a charm that he brings to both of his roles in this film. And yet somehow, even Gyllenhaal is outshined in this film by Michael Shannon. As the laser-focused, morally ambiguous Texas sheriff, Shannon chews every bit of the scenery available to him, even bringing some dark comic relief to the grueling intensity of the story. Shannon seems like a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination here, a role that he was practically born to play. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is the final member of the principle cast, and he's brilliantly menacing as the murderous Ray Marcus. Taylor-Johnson is terrifying, but you won't be able to take your eyes off him.

With all of this praise about the labyrinthine plot, the smart deconstruction of the revenge thriller, and the dark tone and themes, you're probably thinking that Nocturnal Animals is another grim end-of-year drama with no sense of fun in sight. Actually, quite the opposite. Any lover of film will have a blast with this movie. It blends genres, styles, and tones so well, and it's the kind of unique crime movie that we just don't see nearly enough of anymore. It has sequences with tension that will tear your nerves to shreds, moments of drama as profoundly sad as anything I've seen all year, top-notch performances across the board, and a jump scare for the ages (seriously, this thing is up there with the scene from Mulholland Drive, clearly one of the main inspirations for the film). Tom Ford put so much into his madly entertaining concoction of a film, and it's a joy to watch it come to life.

Nocturnal Animals will be a little too weird and confusing for some tastes, but for fans of pulpy, original crime thrillers, Tom Ford's second film will hit the spot. It's a sensational, lurid high-wire act, and it puts Ford firmly on the map as one of the best directors working in Hollywood today. With Nocturnal Animals, Ford hooks the audience into a web of revenge, leaving us with the feeling that we're as trapped as Susan. She can't escape what she did to Edward all those years ago, and we can't get out either. But with a film as good as this, why would anyone want to escape? A captivating thriller about the complex, inevitable, and messy nature of revenge, Nocturnal Animals is an instant classic.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.3/10)

Images courtesy of Focus Features

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