Nocturnal Animals: Stylish Exploitation

Nocturnal Animals is written for the screen and directed by renowned designer Tom Ford (A Single Man). Based upon Austin Wright’s 1993 novel, the film stars an extensive ensemble cast headed by Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal. Nocturnal Animals is gripping, stylish and most surprisingly, kind of weird; verifying Ford’s abilities as a modern polymath of the creative industries.

The idea that most struck me upon viewing this film was the element of exploitation that is so present in culture nowadays, only made more obvious from the opening sequence of this film. I am not going to spoil the opening sequence, but it is really worth discussing and sets the tone of the film marvellously.

Susan (Adams) lives in a world where everyone is engaged in exploitation. As an art gallery owner, she is surrounded by art which involves violence and abuse. When she goes home, she orders her butler to do medial chores as she watches (and turns off) a reality TV programme. When her husband (Armie Hammer) returns home, he can only give her money for her gallery, turning his energy to his mistress. These types of exploitation seem unexceptional in Susan’s life, visually communicated as cold and expensive (but still terribly stylish). It is only when Susan receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) that Susan begins to gain awareness of how isolated she has become.

The manuscript, as it is being read by Susan, acts as a dual narrative with somehow interconnected storylines. The stories are told beautifully with both the real-life Susan, as well as flashbacks that are provoked by the story. It is executed masterfully and is ridiculously meta.

The manuscript story follows Tony – who Susan imagines as Edward (Gyllenhaal) – his wife Laura (Isla Fischer) – who is based upon Susan – and their teenage daughter India. The fictitious family are torn apart in an incredibly violent turn of events. It’s very hard to explain, but translates magnificently on film. As Susan becomes engrossed in the story, so too does the audience, with intriguing characters such as the Detective (Michael Shannon) who begins as a ‘white-hat’ good-guy (with a literal white hat), only to remove his hat and show his true colours. I need to interject and say that Michael Shannon’s performance is one of the highlights of this film, adding moments of genuine humour and charm. I might be biased, however, as I would pay money to watch him eat a sandwich.

Susan is both horrified and titillated by her ex-husband’s story, reflecting on the person that she was when she loved (and was loved) by Edward. The commanding use of tone to identify the warmth of that time is gorgeous, only aiding the plight of Susan’s present, cold character. It becomes clear towards the end of the film that there are three ‘Susans’ – past, present and fictitious: seen and created by Edward. The saddest realisation for Susan is that Edward created at least two of those identities, and in that, exploited her.

One of the most interesting storytelling aspects is that we never actually meet present-day Edward, but know him through his writing and from Susan’s memories. It brings in the questioning of the unreliable narrator, as each characters’ perceptions of the other is tainted in some way. And whether a man who writes so violently could be the same as the one that Susan once loved. He is ambiguous to the audience and Susan both.

Nocturnal Animals is singular in its ability to tell a convincing, compelling story. There are so many ways to look at this film, requiring repeated viewing and thought. It maintains such visual prowess, with Cinematography by Seamus McGarvey who’s previous works include Atonement and We Need to Talk About Kevin. In all of these films, the visuals prove critical in their successful disclosure of tone and narrative.

Also a highlight is Abel Korzeniowski’s spectacular score which demonstrates the importance of selectivity, as only the most transient scenes are underpinned with symphonic score.

Amy Adams shines in this performance, even though she is not (for the most part) the warm, lovely lady that we are used to. Jake Gyllenhaal is so brilliant that it is at times scary to watch, demonstrating that when he chooses a role, he bloody commits (lookin’ at you, Nightcrawler). Also look out for a dozen cameos – Tom Ford loves attractive human beings.

Come Awards Season, I think that Nocturnal Animals will be a frontrunner. It is an all-round beautiful film, but is unique from other typical Awards Season films, as it looks inward and at the medium as a whole. In terms of nominations, Tom Ford may receive Directorial and Screenplay nods, but there will certainly be nominations for Cinematography and Original Score. There could also be a Supporting Actor nod for Michael Shannon, because, well, he deserves all the awards (and kisses).


This piece is also featured on Pop Culture-y

Published by Ella Pace

Ella is a film critic currently working and studying in Melbourne, Australia.

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