Nocturnal Animals (2016) Film Review: Haunted Headlights on the Highway


Nocturnal Animals (2016) is a bleary eyed journey into delusion and revenge. Sitting somewhere between thriller and horror, Tom Ford’s latest is an excellent neo noir that focuses on the blurred line between fantasy and reality. The film opens in an art gallery, where a number of obese women dance naked, in slow motion, with nothing hidden and everything on display. They’re glittered, festooned, legitimised by their art gallery setting. It’s raw and it immediately sets the theme of the rest of the film. Imperfections are exploited, they’re packaged up, marketed, and sold as art.

The story takes place in LA, following the life of an insomniac art gallery owner, Susan, played by Amy Adams. She lives a picture perfect life. Clean, white, sterile with a handsome husband, she’s a successful career woman and her life is well tended. When her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends over an early draft of his soon-to-be published novel, the story hits too close to home. Susan worries that the story is a veiled threat, and coupled with her inability to sleep, the tone of the film shifts from bright airy LA life, to something much darker.

The Stories

Tom Ford uses the cinematography to contrast the clean white of Susan’s life with the paranoid, violent narrative in Edward’s book.

In many ways the story doesn’t naturally lend itself well to filmic constraints partially due to its literary source material. Nocturnal Animals is based on Tony and Susan, a 1993 novel from Austin Wright. But, as a film, Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is exceptionally crafted, with stylistic nods to Hitchcockian thrillers. Ford uses two overlapping narratives and he intercuts one into the other. There’s Susan’s curated LA life, and there’s the dark, atomised loneliness of Edward’s novel. Both narratives bleed into the other to create a violent, writerly, novelistic tale. 

In Edward’s book, titled ‘Nocturnal Animals’, there’s a story about a man whose wife and daughter are kidnapped late at night on a desert highway. He’s impotent, unable to stop it happening, and Susan notices immediate parallels between this story and her life. Edward, still dealing with the end of their marriage, riffs on his grief to tell a hyper-real, violent version of his loss.

For Susan, reading the book late at night by flickering fire light, the nightmarish tone of the story invades her home, making sleep, already difficult, impossible. Ford cleverly uses Susan’s disconnect from reality to shape the way she perceives the novel. It’s not always easy to tell which story is the more important, or more real – Susan’s life as an art curator, or the story in Edward’s novel. 

Stand Out Performance

Michael Shannon, a hard bitten, flawed Texan lawman.

Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent, although I don’t feel he tops his own insomniac tale, Nightcrawler. Amy Adams too is poised and her turn as Susan is notable for her quiet and restrained performance. But if Nocturnal Animals belongs to anyone, it belongs to Michael Shannon, already a favourite of mine, who enjoys a career defining performance. He plays a Texan lawman, hard bitten in all the right ways, tough, smart, and flawed. He’s a true vigilante, and for me, he’s the heart of the film.

Borrowing stylistically from the gloss and glare of Nicholas Winding Refn’s excellent The Neon Demon (2016), and at times a clear throwback to classic, genre thrillers, Ford follows up A Single Man (2009) with an inventive neo noir that’s beautiful, if a touch frayed around the edges.

Nocturnal Animals is a film full of violence, shocking imagery, and moments of real artistry. For those moments alone, the film is worth watching. Ford’s film is a bold exploration of the most hideous parts of humanity and it’ll keep you tossing and turning, counting headlights on the highway long into the wee hours.

Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is a haunted piece of cinema conjuring up ghosts and terror; nostalgia and grief. 

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