Film review: Nocturnal Animals – Gyllenhaal shines in dark thriller

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Fashion mogul Tom Ford returns with his sophomore feature, Nocturnal Animals, a stomach-churningly tense and dark thriller, driven by top-notch performances from Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The film focuses on Susan Morrow (Adams), a successful artist who, despite having all the trappings of such success, finds seemingly herself in a state somewhere between emptiness and melancholy. She receives in the mail a manuscript of the novel her ex-husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal), has finally written, simply titled “Nocturnal Animals”.

The novel tells a violent and harrowing tale of a family getaway brutally cut short by an horrifying string of events that leave the protagonist, Tony (with Gyllenhaal taking on this role as well), broken, his life in turmoil.

The film switches between three equally compelling narratives: the life of Susan, as she begins to draw parallels between the story of “Nocturnal Animals” and the disintegration of her previous marriage; the fictional Tony’s quest for revenge in the underbelly of the American South; and, finally, brief flashbacks to the idyllic relationship of Susan and Edward, filmed with a hue of nostalgia and warmth.

Photo: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

Photo: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

Fortunately, nothing becomes too convoluted or unnecessarily complex. Scenes effortlessly blend together, creating a feeling of not just dangerous obsession, but an uneasy dread as Susan’s life becomes unwound in what she feels may even be a thinly-veiled threat targeted directly at her.

The film opens with footage of nude dancers, and Ford makes it clear from the start that Nocturnal Animals will show things for exactly what they are. It’s that humanity that makes Nocturnal Animals both so violent and so impressive.

It’s nauseatingly tense, and the film is coated with a sinister shine. Something dangerous lies just out of sight.

The direction is sleek, polished, and aptly mesmerising. It’s almost to state the obvious to say that the film is beautifully shot. It rarely feels as though style has been prioritised over substance; Nocturnal Animals is rich in both regards.

Although, the film’s greatest strength is Gyllenhaal’s simply exceptional performance as the fictional Tony. There are times when the story shifts away from his narrative to Susan’s, and you find yourself so deeply absorbed in that you almost can’t wait to get back to it.

Although this is not to suggest that Susan’s segments are at all boring or uninteresting – they’re far from it – nor is it to suggest that Nocturnal Animals can be viewed simply as Tony’s story. It would be unfair to the brilliant Amy Adams to assume such.

Nocturnal Animals is a far deeper and more difficult film to digest. It is, at its heart, a film about falling out of love, and the process of moving on. It finds its balance perfectly.

It is difficult to describe what makes Ford’s latest so great without giving away too much. It’s an incredibly well-crafted thriller, and it deals with its themes and ideas in interesting ways that don’t feel particularly pretentious. The less you know going in, the better.

Nocturnal Animals is a must-see, but, at the same time, not a film for everyone by any means. Despite this, it truly demands to be seen.

Nocturnal Animals rating: 8/10