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Categories: Movie Reviews

AD Cooper reports from a preview screening of Tom Ford’s newest directing effort to give us the low-down on one of 2016’s hottest films.


It’s been seven years since Tom Ford’s first foray into film directing (the much acclaimed A Single Man). With Nocturnal Animals, he returns with his crisp sleek style of film making in this enigmatic revenge thriller.

Adapted from the novel Tony & Susan by Austin Wright, the film intertwines three stories. Originally the novel was a monologue, and Tom Ford spent several years trying to work out how to tell the story as a film, writing it shot for shot. He also moved the location of the story-within-a-story from 1990s Maine to present day Texas.

What’s it about?

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a successful Los Angeles art-gallery owner, who finds her idyllic rich lifestyle is marred by the constant absence of her handsome, but covert-philandering second husband (Armie Hammer).

While he is away, she’s left alone in her perfect designer home to consider her ambivalence about her marriage and career.

Susan is shaken by the arrival of a manuscript written by her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she has not seen in 19 years. She’s soon absorbed in reading it, and we see it brought to life in film but also share her reactions to it.


The manuscript tells the story of Tony Hastings (also portrayed by Gyllenhaal), a teacher whose road trip across Texas with his family turns into a nightmare. They are forced off the road by a trio of sinister country boys led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Then the men abduct his wife (also played by Adams) and daughter.

Bereft and desperate to find his family, Tony seeks help from the police and is allocated the taciturn chain-smoking sheriff Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). There is a spiral into violence spread across the wide Texan landscape that’s reminiscent of “No country for old men”.

As Susan reads the book, it forces her to examine her past and confront some dark truths, remembering happy times with Edward when they were married, and mingling with Susan’s current unfulfilled yet superficially beautiful and perfect life.

So what’s it like?

Right from the opening credits, you know you are in for something different.  For two or three minutes, you are bombarded with slow-motion images of carefree, very overweight, scarred, middle-aged women dancing, wobbling about, and waving all kinds of Americana symbols – this is how Europe sees the USA (according to Tom Ford). It’s an art installation and leads you to meeting Susan who’s presenting it in her elegant Los Angeles gallery to a very stylish and sophisticated crowd.

It’s an undeniably elegant film but filled with contrasts. At times, it exudes an unusual but totally engaging languid dissatisfaction with the high life, at others the pace is bewilderingly disorientating in its speed. When the fictional family are abducted, it’s difficult to watch, and as the pursuit of the abductors heats up, there’s a downward spiral in violence and revenge.


What’s clever is that much of the violence isn’t really seen – only the outcomes – leaving the audience to fill in the gaps. It’s an effective storytelling tool.

With three stories to tell (Susan & Edward when they were in their 20s, Susan’s life now, and the narrative within the manuscript), the script is crisp and lean, with the story-within-a-story reminding you of The French Lieutenant’s Woman in the way it’s presented.  You experience the fictional story through the mind of Susan, and contemporary art images are used to underline the through themes.

There’s a soaring orchestral score by Abel Korziowski that punctuates the narrative.  But at other times, there’s an aching stillness and quiet that is very affecting.

Fabulous cinematography by Seamus McGarry

This film looks brilliant whether it’s the über-chic designer world in Los Angeles or the stark desert landscape of Texas. Every shot is carefully crafted, often with characters filmed off centre and in a wide context. Much of Susan’s world presented at night while she reads (she was nicknamed a nocturnal animal by Edward due to her persistent insomnia). As a result, it’s sometimes feel noirish in the way it’s shot which adds the disquiet.

Tom Ford studied architecture, and this is evident in the way he films the angular modern spaces in elegant Los Angeles galleries and homes. He is also well known as a fashion designer which is doubtless why every shot of Amy Adams looks like something out of Vogue. 


A small criticism is that perhaps it’s almost too perfect especially with the beauty shots of Susan. Even when she is reading alone in the wee small hours, her lipstick is still beautifully and lavishly applied.

Attention to detail is phenomenal, but then so is the copious use of designer product placement in clothes, furniture, décor and more. Everything dressed and styled just so. The long credit roller thanks include every designer name worth a mention – evidencing Ford’s considerable influence in the fashion world.

There are many clever match cuts between the three stories, with a red sofa used as a visual link. This sofa motif doesn’t entirely work but it’s memorable and eye catching. There are also apparently non-sequitur cuts and metaphors, designed to wrong-foot the viewer and these both surprise and keep the narrative surging forward.

The acting is outstanding

At the post-screening Q&A, Tom Ford talked about giving his excellent cast the time and space to create and convey the right emotions.

The central actors put in extraordinary performances. As a woman who’s a victim of not being what she thinks she should be, Amy Adams conveys an enormous range of emotions just using her eyes and face.

Michael Shannon, as the terminally-ill sheriff with nothing to lose, is quiet and contained – apparently he stayed scarily in character throughout the shoot. Jake Gyllenhaal in the dual roles plays both a man set on revenge and a man damaged by Susan with same intensity as he did on Brokeback Mountain.

Taylor-Johnson’s Ray Marcus plays an unusual bad guy who seems ambivalent, even a bit likeable – he’s soft-spoken and often polite, which somehow makes his malevolence all the more unsettling.


Is it worth the ticket?

Without a doubt.  It’s already won a Silver Lion at Venice and an award for Breakthrough Directing in Hollywood, and screened at the 2016 BFI London Film Festival.

It’s not without flaws and it’s not an easy watch, but it’s an emotional roller coaster of a thriller that grips you firmly and drags you through to the end. It looks great, the performances are very strong, and the multi-strand narrative works extremely well.

Nocturnal Animals opens in UK cinemas on November 4th and US cinemas on November 18th.


A D Cooper is a director, producer, writer and multi-media copywriter. She’s won awards for advertising writing, for screenplays long and short, written 80+ scripts for Ninja Warrior (Challenge TV) and published articles, short stories and joke books. Weary of waiting for someone to film her scripts, she started directing in 2010 creating a slate of short films including two corporates, a documentary and a museum installation. All of her fiction shorts for Hurcheon Films have been selected for international festivals, with Ace (2013) garnering five awards. Her most recent projects are an award-winning historical docushort Writing the Peace, a stage version of her World War 1 short film A Small Dot On The Western Front which she wrote, produced and directed, an experimental short film Spring on the Strand (selected for 3 festivals in the USA), The Penny Dropped (Award of Merit in a US shorts competition), and Home to the Hangers newly completed for the Directors UK Alexa Challenge 2017.

Posted on Nov 1, 2016

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