The Semiotics of Murder

Nocturnal Animals

Director: Tom Ford

Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, Isla Fisher, Michael Shannon, Ellie Bamber, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen

Retrospective Film Review

Austin Wright’s beautifully written novel Nocturnal Animals originally published in 1993 about a young couple who break up and the ex-husband Edward Morrow writes a startling graphic revenge novel to prove to his ex-wife that he is a brilliant writer came to the big screen in 2016 by stylish director Tom Ford amidst little fanfare except for some adequate recognition by the Hollywood Foreign Press and a cursory glance by the Academy Awards.

It was perhaps Tom Ford’s unconventional approach to the retelling of such a bizarre novel into a hyper-stylized film noir crime drama set in a murky Los Angeles and in the outback of Texas.

Assembling an all-star cast including Oscar nominees Amy Adams (Doubt, Junebug) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain) as the pivotal couple Susan and Edward along with two brilliant performances by Michael Shannon as the tough but persistent Sheriff Bobby Andes and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Anna Karenina) as the violent rapist Ray Marcus who assault and murder Laura and India Hastings played respectively by the gorgeous actresses Isla Fisher (The Great Gatsby) and Ellie Bamber, was the key to making an extravagant and captivating film noir thriller.

From the provocative title sequence featuring naked obese ladies dancing on pulpits at an avant-garde art exhibition in Los Angeles, to the dynamic costumes designed by Arianne Phillips who also worked on such films as A Single Man and received three Oscar nominations for Costume Design for films including Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, James Mangold’s Walk the Line and Madonna’s W. E.  

Director Tom Ford skilfully uses the semiotics of colours to guide the viewer through the breakup of Edward and Susan to the inner world of the novel aptly titled Nocturnal Animals which uses garish reds and scorched earth browns to reflect a harsh and dangerous world of men who kill women and psychologically manipulate other men especially when they are most vulnerable, driving on dark rural highways in Texas miles away from civilization.

The contrast of the dangerous world of the novel to the hyper-realized art world of Los Angeles populated by bright and gritty characters, signified by the brief appearances of Carlos and Alessia extravagantly played by character actors Andrea Riseborough and Michael Sheen is the environment that Susan Morrow has chosen to inhabit aided by her dashing young husband Hutton Morrow played by Armie Hammer.

Although Nocturnal Animals did not receive as much critical acclaim as A Single Man, for any cineaste it is a film worth watching for its diverse colour palette filled with opulence, horror and complexity. Tom Ford beautifully combines a stylish aesthetic with a superb mix of violence and mystery to create a cinematic film which is both fascinating and repulsive.

Nocturnal Animals gets a film rating of 7.5 out of 10 and is worth seeing for its extraordinary use of semiotics by a talented film director.

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