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By T.T. Stern-Enzi


Photo: Amy Adams as Susan Morrow in Tom Ford’s ‘Nocturnal Animals’ Rating: R; Grade: A

Back in the halcyon days of September, during the delirious full festival run I made through Toronto, I enjoyed a stylistically captivating double feature (“Nocturnal Animals” and “Arrival”) fueled by a pair of nuanced performances from Amy Adams. The back-to-back screenings offered an embarrassment of riches, and that’s even taking into account the high expectations of TIFF.

In a blog entry documenting what was, at that point, only the second day of the event, I admitted that it took her “stereotype-busting turn in ‘The Fighter’” as “a raw, trashy, around-the-Boston-way kind of girl, who exuded a ferocious sensuality,” to shock me into recognizing Adams was more than a pleasant ‘It’ girl-next-door. That role earned her the third of five (current) Academy Award nominations (supporting actress nods for “Junebug” and “Doubt” followed by another supporting actress nod for “The Master” before she jumped up to a leading actress for “American Hustle”).

Whatever I missed in those earlier roles left me punch-drunk and crazy in love with everything she has done since “The Fighter.” That seemingly unbearable innocence on display in, say, “Enchanted” gave way to a startling reservoir of secrets lying beneath her placid surface. She proved to be a stunning creature, alive and naked once exposed by the bright and harsh lights, with no sense of shame.

And that is what fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford (“A Single Man”) exploits in “Nocturnal Animals,” his stylish homage to David Lynch (“Blue Velvet”) and Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) that without a doubt is still very much a Tom Ford film—such an amazing signature to be so clearly defined after only two features. “Nocturnal Animals” is an elegant thriller adapted from the novel “Tony and Susan,” written by the late Austin Wright, a longtime English professor at the University of Cincinnati.

The title of the film is actually the name of a manuscript written by Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), the estranged ex-husband of Susan Morrow (Adams), a dispassionate art gallery owner/brand and tastemaker who occupies a deliciously post-real world. She is bored with the image and the artificiality of it all, tired of playing this assumed role.

It takes the arrival of the manuscript, dedicated to her, to shake Susan out of her funk. And what a jolt it proves to be. As she reads, the narrative comes alive in her imagination and right before our eyes. At the center of the novel, Edward Sheffield (also played by Gyllenhaal), a husband and father, mans the wheel with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) as they drive across a desolate Texas highway at night towards a vacation retreat. Along the way, they encounter a roving gang of good old boys, led by a sadistic sociopath named Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who beat and strand Edward, while kidnapping, raping, and eventually murdering his wife and child. It is a nightmare straight out of the blackest night of the imagination.

The genius of Ford’s work here is in the juxtaposition of the surreal detachment of Susan’s life, its Andy Warhol-cum-Lynchian artifice, alongside the Jim Thompson-inspired bloody pulp fiction inherent in her reading of Tony’s soon-to-be published novel. Taking us even further down the rabbit hole, Ford opens up the backstory of Susan and Tony’s relationship with flashbacks, detailing her callous choice to break up with him, prompting her to see the book as a not-so veiled piece of literary revenge.

Adams anchors the entire affair with the kind of performance I have now come to expect from her. Starting off in a state of glassy-eyed blindness, and then gradually recognizing a horrific reflection of truth before accepting a measure of unblinking guilt, Adams illuminates this long journey toward what might be an unending night without succumbing to the showy hysterics that beg for awards consideration. It is a controlled and self-contained descent.

More importantly, Adams works within the framework of Ford’s exacting vision. Similar to his accomplished adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s “A Single Man,” Ford expertly crafts “Nocturnal Animals” into a coolly precise thriller.