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Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016 12:04 am

Ford’s Animals a haunting, tantilizing mystery

Amy Adams as Susan Morrow in Noturnal Animals.


There’s a hypnotic quality to Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, a sense of foreboding that grows heavier as we progress down the dark roads of its two narratives. This will end badly, you know it, and yet you can’t take your eyes off the screen. The director’s first film, A Single Man, had a similar quality but not the same pull on the viewer, though it too ultimately relied on a bitter sense of irony. No, Animals is something else all together.

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a curator lost in the art world of Los Angeles. While her gallery is a success, she knows full well that what she displays is disposable work with little substance, much a reflection of her own life. While she’s attractive, lives in a mansion and is married to a good-looking (Armie Hammer) businessman, she’s surrounded by a pervasive sense of unhappiness. Out of the blue, she receives a manuscript from her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an author who struggled with his work while they were together but now seems to have found his voice. His latest work is a violent tale of abduction, murder and revenge, a story that immediately gets under Susan’s skin as she comes to see echoes of her relationship with the writer as the story progresses.

Ford’s screenplay, based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, gives us parallel storylines to follow; the first being Susan’s tale, the other being Edward’s novel played out with Gyllenhaal in the role of a father who suffers a great tragedy. The connection between these plot lines seems non-existent at first but certain similarities emerge, though, at time, they are tenuous in nature while a certain ambiguity ends up impacting the film as a whole.

It’s no surprise that the movie looks great, what with Ford’s background as a fashion designer and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Anna Karenina) behind the camera. As Animals reveals itself to be a post-modern film noir, shadows become more prominent in each story line as its dark themes reveal themselves. The movie is never less than compelling from a visual standpoint, and in some ways it suggests a narrative depth that Ford consistently struggles to achieve, setting us up for a profound statement or big reveal that never really comes.

Suffused by Adams and Gyllenhaal’s fine performances as well as that of Aaron Taylor-Johnson, genuinely frightening as a drifter whose path crosses with that of Edward and his family, and Michael Shannon as a grizzled, fatalistic Texas lawman, this fine cast feeds into the fatalistic nature of the story with serious turns in service of the story.

Animals is a haunting piece of work, one that comments on the vacuous nature of junk art, callous behavior bred by a society suffused with self-serving behavior and ultimately the pain of self-reflection. Ford’s film doesn’t simply examine these themes narratively but reflects them as well. Both stories it tells are sordid, each containing elements found in pulp novels, while the principal characters are flawed by venal actions, all of which is commented on by an ironic tone that flows throughout.

Once the film reaches its conclusion, it’s obvious that this is a flawed yet ambitious work, one that wants to say more than it actually does, containing elements not fully defined. Be that as it may, the film proves haunting, one that tempts the viewer to return to it to unlock its secrets, though Ford might be playing us as fools, hinting at layers of meaning that aren’t really there, one final comment on the film and its characters.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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