Nocturnal Animals (aka Tony and Susan) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Based on based on Austin Wright's 1993 novel, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is a story that loves to get lost in its dialogue and decadence, for better and worse. At many moments the film will find itself being so caught up in its lingering scenes of tension, revenge, and bitterness. And for most of the ride, I found myself digging on a story that at times seems too spotty as it shifts between characters and worlds, fictional and somewhat real.
The reality we’re meant to believe is occupied by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a Los Angeles art gallery owner. She’s divorced from her ex-husband writer Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) and now married to the cold and uninterested Hutton (Armie Hammer). Her life is dreary and uncomfortably quiet in the sterile world of her plush estate and open gallery. But then she receives a manuscript from Edward who wants her to take a look at it.
The world of the novel involves Gyllenhaal in a fictional story a Texas crime. Gyllenhaal plays Tony, a meek husband to his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and father to his daughter India (Ellie Bamber). They drive down the wrong Texas road at night and find themselves assaulted by a gang of no-good troublemakers led by the mustached Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). A long and uncomfortable tailgating leads to a terrifying roadside chat where we know nothing good is going to come from exchanging insurance information. A kidnapping occurs and Tony finds himself escaping capture. He works with local Detective Bobby (Michael Shannon), giving Tony the chance to get the real justice of revenge he may very well desire.
Ford’s back and forth between the two worlds, split up when Susan can only read so much, creates an interesting contrast in the merging of these worlds, though not explicit. While Susan’s world is one of cold comfort where the biggest bickering is of infidelity and integrity, Tony’s tale is a dark, grimy, and violent one. There’s an almost fantastical nature to his story of detectives going crooked and gang members of rape most gruesome and psychology most unhinged. Taken on its own, Tony’s struggle is a solid piece of crime and revenge storytelling. But paralleling it with the writer’s ex-wife reading creates a remarkable juxtaposition. I enjoyed how anytime the violence and rape became too much to handle, Susan would take a break as much as we would and a more believable story of an elite’s first-world problems comes as a breath of fresh air. Through her perspective, the Tony world lingers and we want to return if only to find out what happens next and forget about the other world.
It’d be too easy to write off the picture as an uneven mixture of the avant-garde and a Southern thriller. The two work together greatly to weave an unease of the dreary existence and the fantastical world where things get worse but more intense. Adams and Gyllenhaal are at their best in performances they can really chew on with plenty of room to mount the drama and the bleakness of their situations. Ford’s direction lingers on the juiciest of scenes, letting all the violence and uncomfortable exchanges play out with the most engaging of scenes. There’s never a dull moment in the picture, even when it feels as though Adams’ world is filled with dullness and Gyllenhaal’s is one of cliches. The pairing of both makes us question each one a little more in a fantastic little rabbit hole to tumble down.