“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in final line of The Great Gatsby. It’s a sentiment that Tom Ford clearly bore in mind with his second feature film, Nocturnal Animals, which made its North American premiere on Sunday night at the Toronto International Film Festival to a packed house. His follow-up to 2009’s A Single Man—an adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan—is a haunting, feverish vision of two people who cannot escape their past. It functions as both a sexy, stylish thriller and a psychological portrait of people at an emotional crossroads. Most of all, it will keep you enraptured as Ford’s gorgeously shot, fractured narrative unfolds before you and will leave your heart pounding long after the credits roll.
The film tells the story of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a celebrated LA art gallery owner and socialite who seemingly has it all. Except she can’t sleep at night, she’s becoming disillusioned with her work, and there’s a widening emotional chasm between her and her second husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). When he leaves on a last-minute “business trip,” Susan delves into a mysterious manuscript that arrives on her doorstep, a novel entitled Nocturnal Animals penned by her estranged ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). What Susan reads in the manuscript disturbs her, yet she cannot put it down. It consumes her every waking thought and sends her careening down the corridors of memory as Ford weaves together three distinct narratives, oscillating wildly between them: one that follows Susan in present-day as she spirals further into depression; one that exhumes the corpse of Susan and Edward’s courtship, married life, and its dissolution; and one that follows the characters in the manuscript.
The manuscript follows Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), a teacher making a late-night drive with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) to their summer home. Except their summer vacation quickly turns into a nightmare when a trio of brutal men (led by a terrifying Aaron Taylor-Johnson) kidnap Tony’s wife and daughter. They say that you should write what you know, and it slowly becomes clear that Susan’s ex-husband knows quite a bit. As memories and fiction bleed together, we get a fascinating insight into the frustrations, emotional turmoils, and traumas that have colored both Susan and Edward’s lives. Saying too much more here would do a disservice to the film as it is best discovered one fractured remembrance or breathless novel excerpt at a time.
Ultimately, what makes Nocturnal Animals such a pleasure to watch are the tremendous performances from its cast. Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a dynamic, engaging performance as both a struggling writer and an emotionally devastated father. Amy Adams, who is already earning Oscar buzz for her turn in Denis Villeneuve’s terrific Arrival, should not be overlooked for her sterling work in this film, which shows off her considerable range. The supporting cast includes supremely memorable turns by the likes of Michael Sheen, Jena Malone, and Laura Linney (in a devastating cameo as Susan’s mother). Yet perhaps most spectacular of all is Michael Shannon, a mustachioed, deliciously sardonic police detective who joins Tony on his quest for justice.
With Nocturnal Animals, Ford demonstrates he is by no means a one-trick pony, but rather a deft director worthy of attention. Aided and abetted sumptuous cinematography of Seamus McGarvey, the surgically precise editing of Joan Sobel, and a murderer’s row of acting talent, Ford’s sophomore effort is bursting with confidence, which it uses to subvert our expectations. To some, a film that confident may seem smug and make the film come off as too self-satisfied; to others, it may feel hollow, an exercise in style over substance or a series of statements ending in ellipses rather than answers. However, to those that are attuned to Ford’s wavelength, it will feel tremendously satisfying. This isn’t a cookie-cutter thriller, but rather a rumination on the vicious cycles in which we can trap ourselves. It is a visceral autopsy of a lifetime of fears, regrets, and dreams deferred that dares you to look away. And just like Susan Morrow cannot help but turn the page, so must we watch every second.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 burritos
Image: Focus Features
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