Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still loaded with the usual contenders, look a bit closer and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s super-stylish thriller Nocturnal Animals.
Nocturnal Animals could not have been directed by anyone but Tom Ford. The fashion designer turned filmmaker, with his sophomore feature, has created a movie so stylish, and in which the tiniest details are so considered, even the drop of blood oozing out of Amy Adams’ finger looks good enough to lick. There’s nary a hair out of place for the entire two hours. And yet, when things do start to unravel, it’s in wickedly, dazzlingly gorgeous fashion.
Irish DOP Seamus McGarvey bathes Ford’s hyper-realised world in a neon glow, juxtaposed against a crawling darkness that makes even the daytime-set sequences feel murky. It’s as though we, like Adams’ protagonist, are consistently trying to find our footing. Her Susan may be sleep-deprived and more than slightly delirious, but spending time in the slowly un-spooling dual narratives (in both of which she participates) is exhausting in its own right.
Adapted from the tricky novel Tony & Susan, Nocturnal Animals presents a story within a story, and is essentially set in two locales; the relentlessly dark LA in which Susan actually lives, and the dusty west Texas backwoods her counterpart visits with her fictional family – to their ultimate detriment. Violence lurks on the edges of the frame, like an unwelcome guest, from the crazy eyes of Aaron Taylor Johnson’s hideous redneck to the shock of Susan’s aforementioned paper-cut.
The film’s centre-piece, and its greatest claim to the Horror badge of (dis)honour, is a genuinely terrifying road-based chase, which sees the family at the centre of the novel run off the road and brutally terrorised. Although the aftermath is horrific (but still stylishly presented) it’s the time spent waiting to learn what’s actually happened that freezes the blood. And, as Jake Gyllenhaal’s worried father frets, no-nonsense cop Andes (a terrific Michael Shannon) adopts a look of seen-it-all-before resolution.
Rather than being uncaring, he attempts to help Tony as best he can while also wearing the expression of a man who knows the news likely ain’t good. We know it too, but the days stretch out before us regardless, as Susan simultaneously flips the pages in a desperate effort to find out the worst. And, as it slowly dawns on her that the novel she’s reading (written by her still-hurting ex) is more than just dedicated to her, the creeping sense of dread Ford has established throughout clings ever closer.
Nocturnal Animals has much in common with fellow NQH alum, and 2016 release, Hell Or High Water, in that it’s a movie which fudges the lines between good people and bad people, one in which the very idea of hope seems curiously out of reach. The isolated west Texas backdrop helps drive this point home, particularly when key characters go missing, presumably into thin air. Back in LA, Susan is left lonely and aimless by her constantly-travelling husband.
The film could also reasonably be compared to Nicolas Winding Refn’s fully-fledged horror The Neon Demon, which also locates its story in a hyper-realised, sickeningly neon fever dream (albeit, with far more obvious intentions) idea of Los Angeles. Ford’s film, like his styling, is more subtle but no less impactful. While Winding Refn explores the madness with barely-contained relish, Ford builds slowly to an inescapably devastating climax that packs a serious emotional gut whack.
The two would make a strange, cerebral double bill of sorts, being they are both LA-set, focused on female protagonists and deal with decadence, luxury and narcissism as demonstrably destructive elements. Nocturnal Animals is, naturally, the more reserved of the two. But, when Ford lets loose, with flashes of violence here and there like blood spots on a pristine white handkerchief, the results are more upsetting. It’s simultaneously a fascinating character study and a strange, brooding exercise in tension.
Not bad for a movie about a woman reading a book.