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New Release Review - NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

A woman revisits her past while reading the manuscript of a novel by a past husband.






Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Tom Ford

Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen



Nocturnal Animals is gloriously trashy, but also one of the most aesthetically pleasing movies of the year. It seems fashioned specifically to feature on future double bills with Nicholas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon.



Fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford opens his sophomore feature, an adaptation of author Austin Wright's 1993 novel Tony and Susan, in arresting fashion. The credits appear over a montage of naked obese women, dancing and waving American flags against a blood red background. Post credits, we discover these attention-grabbing images are being projected on the wall of a Los Angeles art gallery, while the models concerned lie naked on slabs, surrounded by cheese munching, wine swilling patrons.

After the visitors have left, the gallery's owner, Susan (Amy Adams), sits amid her human canvas of flesh and folds, her expression betraying an inner lifelessness. We soon learn her husband (Armie Hammer) is cheating on her, but she's beyond caring, and she's beginning to lose interest in her work.



Susan is snapped out of her ennui by the arrival of a manuscript for a novel about to be published by first time author Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), to whom she was briefly married at an earlier point in her life. Oddly, and perhaps ominously, the book is dedicated to Susan, and Susan alone.

Curling up on the sofa with a glass of wine, Susan begins the novel, and so unspools a film within Ford's film as we watch Susan's imaginings of the text play out. She pictures the book's protagonist, Tony, as Edward, played of course by Gyllenhaal, yet curiously she imagines his wife not as herself but as another redhead, played by Isla Fisher (has Hollywood ever boasted so many talented ginger actresses as the current crop?).

The story of the book plays out like a classic exploitation movie tale of rednecks, rape and revenge, with a broken Tony teaming up with a rugged Sheriff essayed by Michael Shannon in a role custom built for his particular talents.



The more engrossed in his novel Susan becomes, the more she begins to regret the breakup of her marriage to Edward. Through flashbacks in the vein of Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, we witness the highlights and lowlights that bookended their brief relationship, and we see how Susan grew to despise the virtues that first attracted her to Edward.

In a conversation about the live art installation that opens the film, Susan ponders whether it's art or simply trash. It's a question Nocturnal Animals may raise about itself, a movie that's gloriously trashy (ironically the film within a film is more grounded in gritty realism than the heavily stylised framing device), but also one of the most aesthetically pleasing movies of the year. It seems fashioned specifically to feature on future double bills with Nicholas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon. Ford's film is one made by a figure from the world of fashion portraying those involved in the world of visual arts as soulless vampires, while Refn's is the converse. Both take place in a nightmare LA populated by dead-eyed women drifting through endless rooms of glass and neon, their fingers permanently coiled in serpentine fashion around wine glass stems. As with Refn's film, it walks a tightrope over a boiling vat of misogyny. Is it a critique of male entitlement or an elaborate anti-feminist exercise in punishing female self-determination? There's probably enough in Ford's film to balance both claims.

Beyond the opening sequence there are more nods to David Lynch, including a bizarre scene involving a 'baby-cam' on the screen of an iPhone owned by a deadpan Jena Malone that features that cinematic rarity - a jump scare that genuinely sends shivers down your spine.



Ford manages to skillfully invest us in the narrative of Edward's novel, even though we know from the off it's a work of fiction, and it's a testament to the power of storytelling, reminding us that every movie that grips and engrosses us is just as fictional as the novel Adams' manufactured character is absorbed by. Should it make a difference that one work of fiction is cocooned in the shell of another?

"Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?", Edgar Allan Poe once asked. I'm unsure whether Nocturnal Animals is a dream within a nightmare, or a nightmare within a dream, but I look forward to attempting to figure it out on a rewatch.

Nocturnal Animals is in cinemas November 4th.






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