Unless you’re into S&M, anything that causes actual physical pain isn’t usually considered to be a good thing. Yet here I find myself recommending Nocturnal Animals, a film that’s not about hamsters, but rather an agonisingly tense revenge story. For the duration, my chest was clenched and a sharp shooting pain pulsed through the top of my skull. Assuming I wasn’t having a stroke, I must have been experiencing the effects of a thoroughly gripping thriller. Being cramped up in discomfort until I was hunched over like a Scandinavian troll was a welcomed consequence.
Considering this was achieved by Tom Ford, a fashion designer whose only other directional work comes in the form of A Single Man, I have to declare myself impressed. Nocturnal Animals often runs the risk of being a flamboyant exploration of fashion, like a camp man parading through a walk-in wardrobe, but comprehensively proves it has the substance to match the style. Yes, it is shot like a wanky film noir art project, and yes, its main star Amy Adams wears more outfits than a long-serving mannequin, but that’s a mere sideshow to the, quite frankly, traumatising drama.
Based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals primarily follows Susan Morrow (Adams), a Los Angeles art gallery owner with a taste for morbidly obese women shaking their twats. She struggles to get to sleep at night because of a lack of satisfaction in her work and personal life – although the image of flapping minges probably doesn’t help, either. She’s especially perturbed when her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she left in a brutal manner, sends her the manuscript for his particularly violent book.
It’s a relatively simple plot (some might not consider it a plot at all) but where it really goes beyond the reaches of the average, Marvel-loving fuckwit is in the depiction of Edward’s book. As Susan begins to read, we see her imagine the main character Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) take his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) on a journey across rural Texas, only to be run off the road and terrorised by a group of vest-wearing yobs. From this point onwards, I found it impossible to relax as my mind jumped to the obvious likelihoods. It becomes a matter of waiting for the dreadful things to happen. As it turns out, that’s quite a workout for your sphincter.
Amy Adams and her nuanced expressions are largely responsible for the constant sense of impending doom. A simple twitch of her eye or morose stare into the abyss was enough to make my stomach fall out of my arse. But Gyllenhaal is equally, if not more important in generating the dread. His tortured artist is looking for creative vengeance, while Tony is being shat on in the worst ways imaginable. With Aaron Taylor-Johnson giving a career-best performance as the main hillbilly thug, and Michael Shannon doing a really convincing cancer cough, Nocturnal Animals has everything it needs to stake an Oscar claim. Coincidentally, a golden statue wouldn’t have looked out of place next to the artwork in Susan’s house: cold, hard, glittery and likely to be used to bludgeon someone to death.