Anticipation runs high for fashion designer Tom Ford's sophomore directorial outing after his stunningly sleek, candidly reflective debut A SINGLE MAN (2009), NOCTURNAL ANIMALS has just been crowned GRAND JURY PRIZE in Venice 73', which comfortingly bodes well for its prospect in the Oscar game ahead.
I saw it in on a grand screen in Venice, the film kick-starts with stunning montages of female carnal corpulence, which turns out to be an opening night of a modern-art exhibition organized by Susan Morrow (Adams) in her sumptuous-looking gallery, this eye-opening gambit straight away shoots audience into a state of euphoria towards what we would regard in the offing. Susan lives in a posh residence with her business-oriented husband Walker (Hammer), and in fact, their relationship is teetering on the brink, Susan suspects the latter is cheating on her. The unbidden arrival of a manuscript written by her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal), whom she jolted 20 years ago, casts her mind back to the bittersweet recollection of their jinxed relationship. They married for love, but Edward, a struggling writer, is deemed "too weak" for the ambitious, capable art student Susan, pinpointed by Susan's mother Anne (a matriarch Linney in her scene-stealing cameo, immaculately coiffed too), Susan boldly defies her assertion but, the truth is, mother is always right about her daughter and more disheartening, every daughter becomes her mother in the long run. The break- up is a big blow to Edward, not helped by him catching Susan with Walker in a date.
The manuscript is a novel written by Edward with the titular name, and this story-within-a-story marks Ford's resolute departure from his wheelhouse - the upmarket ritz and glitz. Hence, he assuredly strides into his untested ground - a Western revenge thriller. In the novel, its protagonist, an ordinary guy Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal again), embarks on a family vacation with his wife Laura (Fisher) and their daughter India (Bamber) in the backwoods of Texas, one night when they are driving on the highway, road rage is engendered between them and three local ruffians, Ray (Taylor-Johnson), Lou (Glusman) and Turk (Aramayo), strife follows and mounts to an unnervingly edge-of-your-seat intensity. Tony is not a violent guy, even during the distressing moment when Laura and India are strong-armed into riding with Ray and Turk in their vehicle, meanwhile Lou forces Tony to drive in another with him, Tony comes off too powerless to save his family (one important detail, the ruffians are unarmed, so in hindsight, there is a fainting chance if Tony is strong and brave enough, he might be able to take down his rivals), thus, the tale sends its harrowing message: it is Tony's "weak" nature that should be at least partially responsible for the tragedy incurred to his wife and daughter, but is it? (I think some of us will differ.)
With all the efficiency and predictability of police procedural and post-trauma recovery, Tony's revenge, exacted one year later - which is aided by detective Bobby Andes (Shannon), who is bent on seeking justice within their own hands - eventually hinges on the central question, can a civilized man pull the trigger when facing rank vice, even he has an irrefutable motivation to do so? In another world, can Tony pass the ultimate manhood test, to be a man defined by a rigid frame of mind?
The manuscript drastically stirs Susan's psyche, she is intrigued, emotionally affected by the story's undercurrent of emasculation and humiliation, and attempted to meet Edward for the first time in 20 years, but what awaits her is something she might not expect - Edward's belated revenge, two decades later, which will shoot her down when she is at her most vulnerable.
Gyllenhaal continues his extraordinary stretches of virtuosity in front of the camera, unleashes his show-stopping elemental intensity in his dual roles, especially in Tony, a character poles apart from his strapping figure, a meek sheep unfairly punished for his nature, it is a heartbreaking display of bravura. By contrast, Adams epitomizes a more detached persona nestled in her privileged niche, outlines a more subdued inner journey aptly paralleling Tony's trials and tribulations, and eventually it would strike a more resonant chord with viewers. Shannon, stands out in his effortless turn as a terminally-ill Texan cop equipped with irresistible tics, brazenly unperturbed in his relentless hunt. And, Taylor-Johnson, whose stardom hardly takes off after his breakthrough in Matthew Vaughn's KICK-ASS (2010), has been further pigeonholed in extremely unsympathetic roles notwithstanding, finally finds a knack to lighten the screen with his repugnant cockiness to a fault. Incredibly, there are captivating and hilarious cameos galore, barring aforementioned Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Jena Malone and the unrecognizable TRUE BLOOD star Kristin Bauer van Streten are all smashing one-liners.
Finally, a big thumb up to Mr. Ford, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS comes out brilliant and thought- provoking after ingeniously blending two rather incongruous styles within one feature-length, it is a gorgeous testimony that filmmaking shouldn't take the seat of a second fiddler for this multi- talented taste-maker, not in a world we need someone like him whose reading of masculine culture is far much perceptive than the dispiriting status quo.