Unconventional narratives can either be successful in telling a story or they can fall flat. With films, this is always a risk, a risk of alienating the audience or having something that does not gel, the film will have no flow. Filmmakers such as David Lynch and David Cronenberg have mastered the unconventional narrative approach with a lot of success. Tom Ford fashion designer turned writer/filmmaker has taken this avenue with his second film NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, a brave and bold move that actually works for this particular story.
Privileged and well off woman Susan (Amy Adams) has the ideal life, a handsome husband Hutton (Armie Hammer), a great job at an art gallery and is well looked after. But she is dreadfully unhappy, and her thoughts go back to her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he comes back into her life through a book he has written. He sends her a copy of his latest work NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, as Susan dives into his writing she also reflects back on her life with him and what went wrong.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS takes the approach of showing Susan in the present, giving us a glimpse into her life. She has a lot going for her but in her personal life she is not a happy woman, so the timing of her receiving a manuscript from her ex husband Edward seems to appear when she needs it. The narrative then shows us Susan reading his book also titled NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (which is a nickname he called her because she doesn’t sleep) that he has dedicated to her. We see this story unfold, and the main character of that story Tom is also played by Jake Gyllenhaal. This journey is intense and even though we see it isn’t real and just a story it does have implications for Susan.
The structure of this film moves between the present, the story Susan is reading and her own past as she reflects on meeting Edward, their relationship and betrayal. This in turn does correlate with the story, as the story unfolds so does her past. They are linked in a strange way and it becomes evident that Edward knows this, and this story is a lot more personal than it may seem. The affect it has on Susan, one can suspect is what Edward intends, but that viewers is of course up to you to decide. The story is a compelling one, with characters and motivations that are indeed well written with a sense of familiarity. The downside to this structure is that is may not resonate with everyone who watches it, those who aren’t familiar with that unconventional narrative may struggle here.
The performances here are fantastic, Amy Adams is generally quite capable with each of her roles. Susan is something different for her, and the unhappiness within the character shines through her eyes and you can feel it. Jake Gyllenhaal on double duty is at his best, playing Edward and then Tom within the story, two completely different people and two completely different performances. As Tom he goes through a lot of trauma, he delivers on every note and he makes us care about what happens to him. As Edward he is an innocent falling in love with a woman, and then he goes through the pain, and we do feel that. Supporting players are fantastic, with Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson playing roles within the story. They are the ones who stand out, whilst Michael Shannon is rarely not on form, it is Aaron Taylor-Johnson who really stands out. This is perhaps one of the best performances he has given in his career and the Golden Globe win for Best Supporting Actor was well deserved. Shannon also gives a memorable performance and this is a role quite different for him. Isla Fisher who plays Tom wife within the story really reflects upon Amy Adams and while her role is small she does a great job. Ellie Bamber as the daughter within the story gives a very harrowing performance. Armie Hammer is always usually quite good, and he makes the most of his small role here.
Tom Ford has come up with a unique film, with some interesting themes and touches on them in unexpected ways. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is not the film you may expect based on the trailers, it is a surprise from start to finish with an ending that will easily divide its audience. The film has stayed with me since my viewing, and the thoughts about what happened and what I believe were the motivations behind the characters is still swirling. When a film can make you think about it long after you have seen it, it has certainly done something right. There is no doubt that Tom Ford is a filmmaker to watch out for, his writing as well as direction is his own unique style and he does set himself apart from the rest. This will remain one of 2016’s more memorable films, with nothing else from last year quite like it.