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Nocturnal Animals

Year: 2016
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Tom Ford
Writer: Tom Ford
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Shannon, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Karl Glusman, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen

The premise couldn't be simpler – a guy still regrets his girlfriend leaving him for a man she thought was better but could never love as much, and he writes a story to convey how he feels.

How that story is conveyed however is the kind of thing that could only be told by the medium of cinema. In watching and experiencing the story unfolding in a woman's mind as she reads a novel, writer/director Tom Ford seems to be saying something about the power of the medium.

We know the story of three rednecks terrorising a family on a lonely highway is complete fiction – the film makes no secret that it's the story being read by Susan (Amy Adams). But we respond to it the same way we do any screen story, simply because of the way we're wired to respond to stories (ask any psychologist). It's the same reason we respond to the thrills and danger in Inception even when we know the characters are never in any danger, all of them asleep on a plane throughout the whole film.

I also think I spotted the theme, and even though I felt pretty clever at the time I suspect it was more obvious than I realised. Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), the character in the story Susan is reading, drives you quite nuts as he deals with the three bozos who run he, his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their teenage daughter Ellie (India Hastings) off the road late at night while they're on their way to their holiday.

Fair enough there are three of them and only one of him (as well as two women he'd do anything to protect), but he just refuses to fight back to their provocations and veiled threats no matter how far they push him. What kind of man – you find yourself asking – is Tony?

Turns out Tony is exactly what Edward (also Jake Gyllenhaal) felt like when Susan left him years before. He was a writer, an honest and loving man whose self doubt and lack of ambition Susan once found charming, but voices in her life (including one of her own) convinced her he was a dead end, so she left him for the much more high powered Hutton (Armie Hammer), a great provider who she feels emotionally dead with.

The story of the family and rednecks is the manuscript of a novel Edward sends her, and the movie is about Susan reading it while going about her days and going through the motions, desperately unhappy.

The worst possible thing happens in Edward's story, and it becomes a revenge fantasy as a gruff cop (Michael Shannon) aids Tony in trying to bring the three men to justice, leading to the ringleader Ray (Aaron Taylor Johnson).

Meanwhile, the story forces Susan to confront the demons she thought she'd put away – that she failed Edward by leaving him, that she doomed herself to equal-but-different unhappiness by taking up with Hutton, that she listened too much to her old money Republican mother (Laura Linney in a single scene).

And as she drifts semi-consciously through her life at work and home alone – Hutton has gone off to salvage a business deal and she's already sure of the affair he's having – she can't shake the horrible story of brutalism and revenge out of her mind, everything Edward writes seeming to speak directly about the pain and immobility he felt in the face of her leaving him.

The story-in-a-story scenes are indeed maddening (but if I'm reading the subtext right, that's intentional), and they have pulpy quality that's aeons away from the genteel art world of Los Angeles Susan inhabits. And just like we saw in Arrival, the normally perky and bright Adam is downcast, sad, svelte and withdrawn, no small feat given her natural expressiveness.

And coming as it does from the mind of a fashion designer, Nocturnal Animals has some striking images of visual design, like the dead bodies of two women draped almost lovingly on a blood-red sofa at the forgotten corner of a rural rubbish dump or the show Susan is curating which accompanies the opening credits, of a series of plus-sized women dancing naked in completely uninhibited slow motion.

It's not as simple or as crisp as Ford's debut effort A Single Man, but it's got the same visual confidence and an intelligent depth and something to say, and there's not much more we can ask from any movie today.

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