Summer blockbusters aside, 2016 has been a remarkable year for cinema. Originality has surged with masterpieces like “The Lobster,” “Swiss Army Man” and “Moonlight,” and even tired genres (e.g., sci-fi and horror) have found new life in efforts such as “The Witch,” “Midnight Special,” “Don’t Breathe” and “Arrival.” A dynamic group of grade-A work indeed, but all of these films do share a commonality, which is a sense of epic intimacy. Offering a refreshing alternative to the what-you-see-is-what-you-get flavors of the summer, these movies inspire awe with nuanced performances, careful editing and elegant cinematography. “Nocturnal Animals,” the latest offering from Tom Ford (no stranger intimate cinema), ranks among the year’s finest examples of explosive storytelling through candlelit simplicity. It is a rapturously haunting noir thriller that gets under your skin in wholly unexpected ways.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) has everything, save for a happy life. Unsatisfied with her career as an art gallery owner, as well as her unfaithful husband Hutton (Armie Hammer), she spends lonely hours moping about her lavish Los Angeles mansion. She becomes even more distraught after her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), sends her a manuscript for his upcoming novel, entitled “Nocturnal Animals.” As Susan reads, we see Edward’s novel unfold before our eyes. Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) is forced to confront his inner demons and seek justice for the brutalization of his wife and daughter by a group deplorable delinquents.
The film deftly mixes two distinct genres together into a multilayered narrative that by all accounts should not work as well as it does. Susan’s story, on the surface, amounts to little more than upper class guilt and anguish, complete with beautiful people in beautiful rooms, which plays perfectly to Ford’s fashionista side. An early scene with co-stars Andrea Riseborough (looking like Cleopatra imagined by Tim Burton) and Michael Sheen is essentially the centerpiece of this darkly cinematic fashion show. But as her ex-husband’s novel continues, Susan’s sulking around her modernist home doesn’t seem so pretentious. Tony’s story is that of a gritty revenge western, combining the uneasy atmosphere of a Coen Brothers’ drama with the nightmarish flares of a David Lynch film. Although we know that none of Edward’s book is real, it certainly feels that way, especially when you consider how Susan’s narrative gradually descends into inescapable darkness.
Ford is as passionate as filmmakers come these days, but it’s a wonder how he directs with such confidence when you account for his signature career in this fashion industry. Having already one motion picture success under his belt - the emotionally understated gay drama “A Single Man” - Ford ambitiously steps up his game with this complex thriller that makes the beautiful bleak and the bleak beautiful. Putting a megaphone to Ford’s unbridled passion for this kind of storytelling is Abel Korzeniowski’s euphoric score, which sounds like a more ghostly rendition of Bernard Herrmann’s music for “Vertigo.” Its darkly stirring nature is matched by precise editing, which flows with the rhythm of an unsettling horror film. Shades of crimson flood what seems like half of the entire film.
Performances are also fiercely compelling. Adams, though tasked with looking morose most of the time, remains an ice cold presence throughout. Gyllenhaal plays male weakness to a strikingly realistic degree, effortlessly shifting back and forth between his dual role as author and character. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, playing the leader of the goons that turn Tony’s world upside down, is absolutely wicked. Think a young, long-haired Hannibal Lecter that developed a taste for rape and murder instead of human flesh. Michael Shannon is brilliant as the detective who helps Tony achieve his revenge; the kind of lawman that would probably be a loose cannon without his badge. Emotions run rampant through these characters, fueling plot progression until it overflows with the promise of frustration, heartbreak, and violence as only Ford could make it. Give yourself over to this one; it’s a wild, wild ride.