Don’t be offput by the bravura and irreverent title sequence, which just happens to feature a parade of plus-sized and completely nude models dancing for the camera in slow motion as an unseen orchestra performs a bravura opening composition.
Take what you will from the scene, it has little to do with the rest of Nocturnal Animals.
Save the credits gag, fashion designer-turned film director Tom Ford’s second film to date is a less arty – and more accomplished – outing than his previous, 2009’s excellent A Single Man, and one of the best (if also most divisive) films of 2016.
Animals boasts an outstanding cast that centers on Amy Adams as a contemporary art gallery owner Susan Morrow, married to unfaithful spouse Hutton (Armie Hammer), who gets a most unexpected package in the mail: a manuscript from her first husband, Edward Sheffield (played in flashbacks by Jake Gyllenhaal).
As Susan begins to read the script, we dive into Edward’s world with a gripping, violent story of crime and revenge about husband and father Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) and an unfortunate late-night encounter on the desert roads in the middle of rural Texas.
And it’s the story-within-the-story, or movie-within-the-movie, where Animals truly shines. Boasting outstanding work by Gyllenhaal, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Michael Shannon (who received an Oscar nomination for his work here), it’s so compelling we wait with baited breath for it to resume every time Susan puts down the page.
But Edward’s manuscript threads beautifully with the real-world narrative: is it a threat? Is it proof of his worth? Has he forgiven Susan for long ago misdeeds? A proposed meeting between the two while Edward is in town elevates the tension.
It isn’t easy to make scenes of someone reading a book compelling, but director Ford and star Adams play with the ambiguity surrounding Edward’s manuscript quite wonderfully. The understated emotions of Susan’s life contrasts wonderfully with the pulp rewards of the movie-within-the-movie, and Ford gets to have his cake and eat it, too.
The film’s final scene, a long, silent sequence focused entirely on Adams, is perfection.
In this film and Arrival, the actress has given two of the very best lead performances of the year, only to come away without an Oscar nomination. After losing out five times previously, it might be for the best.