Nocturnal Animals (2016) – Review

Going to watch Nocturnal Animals was one of those rare occasions where I had absolutely no clue what I was getting into. I hadn’t read reviews, hadn’t watched a trailer, hadn’t even read a synopsis. I just knew that it had two of my favourite actors (Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams) and that it was generally creating some positive buzz. Whether it’s the type of film that really benefits from such a lack of foreknowledge is hard to say (though arguably any film would); all I know is that, had I known more about it going in, I probably still wouldn’t have expected what I got.

And that’s because Tom Ford’s second feature is a curious, offbeat masterclass in subversion. Which isn’t to say it works on every level, but being that it’s constructed in such a unique way, with thick ambiguity hanging over every beautifully-crafted frame, it’s hard not to become somewhat hypnotized – at the very least, it’s sure to be one of the more interesting films you’ll see this year.

The plot essentially plays out via three timelines; one present, one past, and one fictitious. In the present, we’re presented with Adams as a lonely, soul-searching art dealer who’s just opened a new modern art exhibit with personally underwhelming results. She’s married to a beautiful man who (maybe) doesn’t love her and lives in a beautiful mansion which does nothing for her. Her life is ostensibly perfect, but she’s clearly unhappy – an unhappiness which reveals itself with further clarity after she receives a manuscript dedicated to her from her ex-husband (Gyllenhaal), entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals’.

As Adams proceeds to read the novel, we cut to its fictitious plot in which a family from West Texas (Gyllenhaal also plays the dad, married to Isla Fisher) sets off on a road trip, only to be driven off the road by a group of brutes, led by a truly despicable yet excellent Aaron Taylor-Johnson. As events escalate and predictably horrible things ensue, we’re just about ready to break down completely when we’re suddenly back with Adams, devastated by what she’s reading.

It’s odd, and our first reaction is to feel jarred, yet it’s actually quite compelling. It’s such a different way to approach telling a story on the screen. While I freely admit to being unsure what the film is actually trying to say in the end (I suspect it’s been left purposefully ambiguous), the juxtaposition between telling one ‘real’ and one ‘fake’ story simultaneously works unexpectedly well. And, I suppose, leads me to believe that Ford is attempting to make some kind distinction between what revenge means in the context of real world vs the embellished stories we come up with. Either way, it’s the lack of certainty which makes the film so rewarding.

Unique plot aside, the film also succeeds on both a technical and artistic level. The performances are universally terrific, and the thing just looks beautiful. Many of the dark city shots reminded me of Collateral, which is basically a benchmark in night time cinematography. It’s like watching a painting.


Seductive and curious; Nocturnal Animals is likely to bewilder as many as it captivates, but there’s no denying there’s something special at work here. This type of unbridled artistic impression doesn’t come along every week, so I’d urge anyone to seek it out while they can.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

1 Comment

  • ARRIVAL (2016) - REVIEW - Lights Overhead November 14, 2016 at 12:43 pm:

    […] and I think it’s finally fair to say she’s a revelation. After an magnificent turn in Nocturnal Animals just last week, she’s gone one even better here (to be honest, she probably needed a couple […]


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