"Do you ever feel like your life is turning into something you never intended?", asks Amy Adams' troubled Susan Morrow in the trailer for Nocturnal Animals. Tom Ford, the movie's visionary director, might have felt that way himself after bringing together the kind of A-list ensemble cast few directors ever have the privilege of working with — much less on only their second feature film.
Then again, Ford operates in his own, distinct lane, and Nocturnal Animals is not the kind of movie that comes along every year. Its unique story-within-a-story narrative renders Susan only one part of a larger puzzle, Ford's screenplay demanding that every member of the cast dive deep under their characters' skin, whether that be a jaded police detective, a bloodthirsty sociopath or a scorned ex who finds something that might be perceived as revenge in the pages of a novel.
Even those who caught the trailer more than once might be surprised to learn that Nocturnal Animals contains a whole host of famous faces, some unrecognizable, others playing wildly against type.
The Transformation Of Aaron-Taylor Johnson
Take Aaron Taylor-Johnson, for instance. The softly-spoken Brit best known for his work in Kick-Ass and a breakthrough performance as John Lennon in the biopic Nowhere Boy is utterly transformed here as Ray, a violent thug with long, loose hair and, in the actor's own words, "no empathy behind the eyes."
Taylor-Johnson studied serial killers from Ted Bundy to Jeffrey Dahmer to get inside Ray's head, and the sense of savagery Ray exudes is so far removed from the actor's mannered performance in Anna Karenina, for instance, it's easy to forget who you're watching.
Michael Shannon, America's Most Versatile Character Actor
It's impossible to read a review of Nocturnal Animals without tripping on the praise lavished at Michael Shannon for his portrayal of Bobby Andes, a detective worn down by experience but talented enough to help Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) seek justice for an act of violence committed by Ray against Tony's family. Shannon has flirted briefly with the mainstream from time to time, most recently as General Zod in the DC superhero flick Man of Steel, but the majority of his work is more niche, more considered, a filmography which speaks to the vast talents and intelligence of one of America's finest character actors.
TV audiences know Shannon best as Boardwalk Empire's Nelson Van Alden, while those who follow the festival circuit may recognize him from this year's ambitious sci-fi/mystery Midnight Special, or as Elvis in Elvis & Nixon, or a ruthless real estate entrepreneur who thinks nothing of evicting a man from his home in 99 Homes. The roles stack up — incredibly, Shannon has nine movies to his name in 2016 alone, but none are likely to gain his as much attention as this highly magnetic performance.
Check out Bobby Andes at work in the above clip from Nocturnal Animals.
A Masterclass In Scene-Stealing From Laura Linney
Laura Linney has only one scene in Nocturnal Animals. Ford, though, is a generous director, and he ensures that scene packs a major punch, providing a devastating insight into the circumstances that lead Susan to break the heart of her first husband and embark on a path she would later come to regret taking. The casting of Linney is almost genius — the star of Sully and Showtime's The Big C typically plays grounded, likeable women.
As Susan's mother — a formidable Southern matriarch with big hair, big pearls and questionable wisdom who seems determined to enforce the prophecy that all women eventually become their mothers — Linney could not be frostier, every word hanging in the air like a viciously sharp icicle. It's the contrast with the actor's typical screen demeanor (she broke hearts like sport as a cancer victim prepared to embrace life in The Big C) which elevates this short but crucial scene into something unforgettable.
It's All In The Eyes For Amy Adams
As Susan Morrow, Amy Adams spends large chunks of Nocturnal Animals reading a book. For many actors, that might prove a major challenge — by virtue of reading words on a page, most of Susan's emotional response to Edward's novel has to be inward, which makes it difficult to communicate. In another actor's hands, the lack of a visual, visceral response would serve to prove the thesis that Susan is cold-hearted, which is at odds with Ford's vision of Susan as a fundamentally good person.
Ford describes in beautiful detail his reasons for casting Adams: "Amy has a soulful quality in her eyes ... Maybe more than any other actress working today, she's particularly good at telegraphing how she's feeling, what's going on in her mind, just on her face, in her eyes."
Jake Gyllenhaal Finds Strength In Weakness
The truth is that Jake Gyllenhaal is incredible at crafting characters who are both weak and strong, who defy categorization, and Ford's movie allows the audience the freedom to make their minds up about Edward. Is the book an act of vengeance, or something more innocent? Did Susan make the right choice in walking away, or did she misidentify his weakness? As always, Gyllenhaal's nuanced performance grounds Nocturnal Animals in the realm of the ambiguous.
Almost every article or review focused on this movie throws the word "stylish" around gleefully, but you'd be wrong to think an impeccable aesthetic is the primary reason for seeing Nocturnal Animals. Yes, it's beautiful, the kind of beauty that demands to be seen in theaters and then again in ultra-HD at home. But it's the cast, a menagerie of outrageously skilled actors operating at the very top of their game, which forms the beating heart of this dark portrait of rejection and betrayal.
Watch a clip of Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal at work in Nocturnal Animals above. The movie opens in select theaters November 18 in the US, expanding nationwide on December 9.