14 November 2016

Nocturnal Animals review

Nocturnal Animals, the second film from fashion designer/film-maker Tom Ford, isn't exactly an easy film to describe. An adaptation of Austin Wright's novel "Tony and Susan", it uses two distinct plots to tell one story, a narrative within a narrative in which information from one abstractly informs the other. Following the unexpected delivery of a manuscript, we follow art gallery owner Susan Morrow as she is drawn into the fictional story of Tony Hastings, whose traumatic experience forces her to recall painful memories of her past relationship with the manuscript's author.

It's a unique story-telling method for sure, one that places Nocturnal Animals amongst the more engrossing films of the year. As Susan is drawn further into the book, the layers surrounding who she is and how she ended up living the life she is living are peeled back, and we grow to learn more about these characters with them barely uttering a word. Information is doled out masterfully, each reveal not just giving us new information but also recontextualising previous bits of information and elements of the book that Susan is reading. In that respect Nocturnal Animals is virtually flawless, balancing the needs of its two intertwined stories with a deft hand and a sense purpose that rarely falters.

Under a less talented director this unusual method of story-telling may have resulted in a horribly disjointed movie, but a tight-control of tone and pace throughout holds everything together. The best example of this comes in the scene showing us the instigating incident of the book that Susan is reading - it's a superbly directed sequence, expertly building tension as it delivers one of the most plausibly frightening scenes I've seen this year. It's impossible not to put yourself in the shoes of main character Tony Hastings during this scene, wondering what you might have done differently as things almost totally beyond his control change his life forever.

But herein also lies Nocturnal Animals' biggest flaw, or more accurately, its most problematic aspect. All said and done, this is a film predominantly about the female experience, and yet our empathy (both in the film and in the novel within the film) lies with male characters as we watch them react to women going through traumatic experiences. One example sees the film "fridging" female characters in pretty much its purest sense; another frames a woman making a difficult and traumatic decision through the eyes of a male character and how it affects him. Worst of all, Nocturnal Animals ends up making a direct comparison between a form of family planning and the literal death of a family - intentional or not, the analogy made here combines with a less than flattering view of femininity to paint a pretty poor picture of women in general.

Still, putting subtext aside (as if you can ever really just put subtext aside), Nocturnal Animals remains an incredibly well-made film, offering a solid, engaging story alongside a wide range of great performances from its entire cast, including a particularly noteworthy turn from Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the villainous Ray. Nocturnal Animals may not be for everyone, but as long as you're willing to attune yourself to its particular wavelength you'll find a smart, stylish thriller that although maybe a tad conventional at times, doesn't disappoint.

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