You could be forgiven if while attempting to find Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them you found yourself stumbling into this decidedly different film, indeed, a fantastic beast of a film, a simultaneously gripping and intentionally and overly ambitious work of art designed by Tom Ford, an American fashion designer turned filmmaker who makes movies for the same people likely wear his clothes - people whom society might tell you are better than you and I but people who are, in the end, just as fucked up and living in worlds that shatter a whole lot more easily.
From the film's opening moments, a garish assemblage of performance art meets real world, Nocturnal Animals is either the kind of film you love, the kind of film you hate, the kind of film you fight about or the kind of film you just don't understand.
There's a pretty good chance that Tom Ford ain't gonna' tell you.
The story, though not quite as literal as one might think, centers around Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a woman who has obtained the life she always wanted only to find herself in the middle of an urban Toby Keith song, a world where money hasn't bought happiness and the things that distract may very well be the same obstacles to ever reaching that happiness. She's married to Walker (Armie Hammer), who is struggling to hold on to his financial empire when Susan runs across Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), the man she fell in love with twenty years earlier but the man she left behind when his reality and her dreams couldn't weave themselves together in anything resembling an idyllic life.
There may, of course, be more to their split than meets the eye. It's never completely sure, especially when Edward sends Susan a copy of his completed novel, Nocturnal Animals, a fantastic and familiar beast of a novel that leads to one of the film's most hypnotically harrowing scenes as a man, also portrayed by Gyllenhaal, is driving through West Texas in the middle of the night with his wife and teenaged daughter when they are forced off the road and brutalized by a trio of baddies led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson's taunting and sociopathic Ray Marcus, the name itself being evidence that Ford gives this baddie some serious depth far beyond what we're used to seeing in this type of film.
If this were your typical Hollywood stylish thriller, the man in question would defend his family's honor and come to their rescue, though such is not the case and it's that unresolved tension that drives not just the scene but the entirety of the nearly two-hour long Nocturnal Animals.
To its credit, Nocturnal Animals doesn't condemn this guy. It also doesn't particularly sympathize with him, because Tom Ford is incapable of being a particularly sympathetic filmmaker. Nocturnal Animals is a pulpy thriller dripping with style that never leaves even when Ford pours on the film's vision of the kind of violence that stays in one's mind forever and becomes the kind of emotional driving force that even once the details begin to fade away it still manages to be the guiding force for one's life choices.
There are similarities between Nocturnal Animals and Ford's first film, the critically acclaimed yet oft-misunderstood A Single Man. They aren't the kinds of similarities worn on the sleeve, though it's not a stretch to imagine that if you didn't care for A Single Man there's a pretty good chance that Nocturnal Animals won't exactly be your fancy as Ford has amped up the intensity level and put everything into a sort of melancholy overdrive.
There are going to be plenty of folks who won't care for Nocturnal Animals, especially in a year when Amy Adams has already served up a far more winning and just as acclaimed performance in the infinitely more accessible Arrival. Nocturnal Animals isn't about to be knocking on the door of Rogue One's box-office numbers this holiday season, though those seeking a decidedly more adult thriller with adult characters doing adult things may find the film a reasonable alternative.
There are good to terrific performances across the board here, though those who predicted that this would be Adams's most acclaimed performance of the year are likely to be disappointed and just plain wrong. While it's a terrific and incredibly layered performance, it's going to be saddled with the simple fact that this isn't how America loves to see Adams, an incredibly gifted actress somewhat burned by a "girl next door" charm and look about her. Gyllenhaal is also solid in a dual role, is mesmerizing as his novel's lead character, whose display of terror feels incredibly real and incredibly life-changing. Michael Shannon, one of the best actors working today, is incredibly solid if slightly misused here while Laura Linney's relatively brief appearance is memorable and Armie Hammer is fine in the only role that feels one-note.
Nocturnal Animals is the kind of film that will be discussed and debated amongst those few with balls enough to venture into the indieplex to check it out. It's a fantastic beast of a film, flawed yet bold and ambitious enough to largely overcome those flaws for those patient enough to wait it out. Ford refuses to cater to Hollywood's bastardizing of scripts and trusts his audience to either understand where he's going here or figure out a way to make sense of it all. We've seen this kind of film before, sometimes even better such as in the in the case of In the Bedroom, but Nocturnal Animals is a film that successfully stylizes primal fear and revenge in a way that we've seldom seen captured successfully on the big screen. Both staid and modestly insane, Nocturnal Animals is, indeed, a fantastic beast.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic