Nocturnal Animals: Creatures of the night

Chances are there will never be another movie quite like “Nocturnal Animals.”

Fashion designer turned director Tom Ford’s second film makes bold statement after bold statement cinematically on its way to being one of the year’s best movies – and certainly its most controversial.

Before any of the feature’s four main stars – Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon or Aaron Taylor-Johnson – even hit the screen, Ford sets the stage with a bizarre, jarring opening credit sequence featuring several aging, obese women dancing naked for three-and-a-half minutes.

Even after it’s revealed that the women are part of an exhibition showcase for a high-end art gallery run by Susan Morrow (Adams), the sequence still seems so out of place within the context of the rest of the film and may drive some viewers to leave the theater. This would be a mistake as “Nocturnal Animals” is one of the year’s most compelling dramas with a highly complex plot and masterful individual performances.

The film focuses on three different timelines: Susan’s present day life interrupted by a package from her ex-husband Edward, her romance and marriage to Edward and the content of the novel Edward sends Susan to read after not speaking to her for nearly 20 years. Additional details would ruin Ford’s terrific adaptation of the 1993 novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright.

One of the best actors working today, Gyllenhaal does masterful work pulling double duty as both Susan’s ex Edward and the male protagonist in Edward’s novel, Tony. Gyllenhaal finely crafts a delicate balance between making each of his characters unique and blurring the lines between the two as the story progresses. No actor exhibits internal or external emotional turmoil better than Gyllenhaal and he is able to put both on display in a perfect effort.

Adams is constrained by the plot to offset Gyllenhaal with a subdued, internal performance that bridges timeline gaps. As a result, her work is not as showy, but rather Adams portrays Susan as a woman with suffocated elegance struggling to find herself. There are a lot of small, nuanced facial tics that Adams develops to help layer the character and mirror Gyllenhaal’s two roles that are more readily apparent on a second viewing.

Veteran character actor Shannon has yet to be nominated for an Academy Award, which might soon be corrected with a much deserved honor for his work as a west Texas cop leading a missing persons investigation in Edward’s novel. The consistently fantastic actor delivers as chain-smoking detective Bobby Andes with a measured, scene stealing performance rivaling leading Oscar contender Jeff Bridges’ turn in a similar role in “Hell or High Water.”

Taylor-Johnson, best known for his work in superhero films like “Kick-Ass” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” turns in a career best performance as Ray, a nefarious drifter that serves as the primary antagonist in Edward’s novel. Ray borders on criminally incompetent or ingenious depending on the given moment and the effort is one of those unexpected gems that elevates the entire film to the next level.

Ford’s fashion eye carries over well when it comes to the picturesque cinematography of “Nocturnal Animals,” which often feels like it was ripped straight out of a Dior perfume commercial or Vogue magazine advertisement. Director of photography Seamus McGarvey does a tremendous job of making rich Los Angeles and western desert landscapes come to life as Ford allows “Nocturnal Animals” plenty of time to breathe scene to scene.

There’s a lot of merit – both acting and technical – that should be under consideration this awards season, though it’s quite possible that the film’s controversial open could keep “Nocturnal Animals” out of the running in many major categories. 

An award nomination for Adams’ performance in the mesmerizing sci-fi drama “Arrival” could easily be construed as a joint nomination with her effort here. Similarly, Gyllenhaal deserves strong consideration for his two-pronged effort in “Nocturnal Animals” coupled with a highly underrated turn as a grieving widower in “Demolition” but this seems like more of a long shot.

Moviegoers willing to allow themselves not to be swayed by the film’s shocking open will find “Nocturnal Animals” a scintillating and provocative psychological thriller than captivates audiences from start to finish.

Led by a terrific ensemble cast and gorgeous cinematography, “Nocturnal Animals” will end up among the year’s five best films and is an absolute must see in theaters. 

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