TIFF Review: ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a Haunting and Powerful Thriller

Tom Ford directs his first film since A Single Man (2009), and surpasses that with a bold, stylish thriller that is dark and frightening with powerful performances from the entire cast. Adapted from the novel Tony and Susan, the film focuses on Susan (Adams) a wealthy art gallery owner who wants for nothing, and is married to a power broker who is never home and she suspects to be cheating on her. Out of the blue her ex-husband sends her a manuscript for a novel he has written. They parted ways nineteen years before when she wounded him a way that cannot be forgiven, and because she felt him weak. While reading the book, and in the days after she will learn he is no longer weak, and in many ways he pays homage to her in his novel.

The novel comes alive as a film within the film, with Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays her ex, also portraying the main character in the book, a teacher, who loads his wife and teenage daughter into a car to head across Texas. On their way they are forced off the road by a gang of young men looking for trouble. There is a back and forth, before we see in horror, the two women being driven away by the gang, as he watches in terror, utterly helpless. Of course the women are found murdered, having been raped and tortured first. Reporting it to the local police draws the attentions of a laid back but ornery cop portrayed beautifully by Michael Shannon, who is facing down something from which he will not walk away standing. Together he and the husband track the rapists and bring them in and then decide to hand out their own kind of justice.

While I could hear the audience murmuring who the writer had created for his ex-wife, I believe the killer is standing in for her because it was she who took away what the writer loved and never got from her. She wounded her ex in an unforgivable way and knows she did, is guilty over what she did. She killed their relationship and in many ways killed him too, or at least the person he was is gone, the man she perceived as weak. Watch the film and you will see what I mean.

Adams is fine in the film, brittle, haunted by what she did to her ex, who did nothing more than love her like she deserved.

Gyllenhaal gives on of the best performances of his career as the tortured husband-father searching for justice. He agonizes over why he did not do more, why he did not fight back (we ask that question too) and was it fear, or that he was too weak…he certainly overcomes any weakness.

Shannon gives the best performance in the film, a cop who always knows more than he is saying, who intimidates just by being close to his prey, who hates seeing bad guys get off, and who, we learn has really nothing to lose.

Very effective as the killer-rapist, so much so we want to see any pain and hurt befall him is Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who in giving the character some form of depravity gives him no sense of humanity at all, he is a creature not a person, someone who has no regard for human life, a terrorist in his own way. It is a frightening but affective performance.

Ford becomes a major filmmaker with this, beautifully composing his shots, working well with his actors and keeping the film movie without getting bogged down in the middle which could have easily happened. It is one of the years best films and should be heard from come Oscar time.

Rating: 4/5