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THE HAUNTING OF ‘NOCTURNAL ANIMALS’

At  one time it was normal to tell a story from beginning to end; now, juggling a movie’s timeline has almost become a cliché. Yet in his second film, (following A Single Man) Tom Ford has not only mastered a tricky narrative but establishes two separate, completely tangible environments. What’s more, he maintains a consistent tone for both facets of this seductive story, which he adapted from Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan.

From the moment we meet polished gallery owner Amy Adams there’s something not quite right. (This is also true of the artwork on display, although that may be in the eye of the beholder.) Then we learn that her husband (Armie Hammer) chose not to attend her opening night celebration and see the obvious strain in their relationship. A short time later we learn that she was married once before, when she was very young, and hasn’t heard from her ex in a number of years. It comes as a surprise when a package arrives in the mail with a manuscript he has written called Nocturnal Animals which he has dedicated to her. As she starts to read it she becomes completely absorbed—and so do we.

It is a nightmarish tale about a husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) heading to a vacation spot with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter when they are confronted by three thugs (led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) in the middle of the night on a deserted Texas highway. How will the nominal hero respond? What can he do when he is outnumbered and has no weapons at his disposal? He comes to rely on a deputy (Michael Shannon, in another great performance) who is determined to solve the case.

What does all of this have to do with Amy Adams’ character? That’s a discussion that must take place after you see the movie. Suffice it to say that reading her ex-husband’s manuscript causes her to reflect on the emptiness of her life, in spite of her fashionable surroundings… as opposed to the youthful idealism that fueled her love for Gyllenhaal, an aspiring author.

Nocturnal Animals insinuates itself into our consciousness even though we try to cling to the idea that the story-within-a-story is just a piece of fiction. Good luck with that! Writer-director Ford may be better known as a fashion designer, but this movie represents a daring walk on the high wire by a man who has more than proven himself as a filmmaker. It’s not just an accomplished piece of work but a movie that completely envelops its audience. That’s no mean feat.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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