Directed by Tom Ford
Written by Tom Ford
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Tylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, and Armie Hammer, with Laura LInney and Michael Sheen
Runtime: 116 minutes
Normally at the beginning of a review, I try to place the film I’m writing about in a historical or genre context. That’s where Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals first throws a spanner in the works. There are three seemingly disparate storylines that more or less feed off each other and are connected but are also still separate. There is very intricate story weaving that places the film at once as a portrait of an unhappy woman in a crumbling marriage, a thriller and the story of optimism that turned to cynicism.
First, we meet Susan at a gallery opening and she doesn’t appear to be very engaged despite it being her opening. Shorty, we discover that her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) didn’t stop into the opening on his way to a meeting and that was part of the reason Susan was disengaged. She’s also very unhappy with her work and her decisions. A package is delivered for her, which turns out to be her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal)’s novel, one he says in a letter he couldn’t have written before she left him (which was 19 years ago). As she reads the novel, it feels more and more like a revenge thriller with Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher, who years ago I would often confuse with Amy Adams) and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber) getting terrorized on an isolated road in West Texas, leading to the women being kidnapped. This makes Susan reflect on her relationship with Edward and the cruel way she left him for Hutton.
Writer/director Tom Ford (a former fashion designer for Gucci and Yeves St. Laurent, with his own fashion line and cologne et al) wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Austin Wright and successfully captured the layers of a novel while still making it cinematic. The themes and emotions he goes back and forth to are so well structured and framed you never feel confused about what story you’re in. He intensifies each passage and each time that happens, the toll on Susan is shown and felt. The novel is the catalyst for Susan’s already impending breakdown, causing her to lose sleep (which she didn’t get much of in the first place, apparently) and by showing us the novel as she reads it and is then effected by it is a touch of dramatic mastery. Susan further disturbs herself by dredging up the past and how bad she feels for what she did to Edward all those years ago.
In another’s hands, the only segment of the book that would have been filmed would have been the thriller portion that makes up Edward’s novel, and that would have made a pretty good stand-alone film. Ford challenges us with a multi-layered story and details how our past and present can affect how we view art. Susan is scared by the novel not just because it’s a horrifying story but because such awful things happen to the women, she starts to feel if this isn’t some revenge fantasy that Edward has spun to get back at her.
Ford is as bold as a director as he is as a writer. His visuals offer stark images when we’re with Susan, often in dark colors or blacks and whites, vivid and arid when we’re inside the novel in the desert of West Texas with a warm brown color palate and the flashbacks somewhere in-between. He works well with his actors, getting many of them to turn in some powerhouse performances where you wouldn’t expect it (and others that you do). He also makes his camera movements different for each story: static for Susan, fluid movement for the novel and again a blend of both for the flashbacks.
Coming out on top of all of the technical achievements of the direction and screenplay are the performances, notably Adams turning in her second great performance of the year (after Arrival). Her cold nature is very different from many if not all of her prior characters, who are often at least somewhat optimistic. Susan is emotionally barren on the outside while being eaten up by guilt from her past. Gyllenhaal gives an impassioned performance in both of his rolls. As Edward, he’s optimistic and hopeful for the future, energetic if lackadaisical and as Tony he’s neutered by fear then later grief. Gyllenhaal gets a lot of grief for some reason, yet he consistently turns out quality performances. Another standout is Michael Shannon, who is great in pretty much any role he takes on, but here he plays a morally flexible detective that never particularly inspires trust but never leads Tony down a path he doesn’t want to go.
Nocturnal Animals isn’t for all tastes and may turn people away during the opening credits, which features older overweight women dancing naked in slow motion (it’s Susan’s art exhibit). Ford is basically saying “You think this is uncomfortable? Just wait.”. The film is emotionally raw, terrifying at times and completely engrossing, but never comfortable. It’s a challenging film, not only because of its three stories but because of how intense those stories are. Ford also doesn’t go for any laughs, so don’t expect any of this heavy emotion to be dispelled by a quick joke (there is at least one party scene where there’s a little humor, but it’s brief). Nocturnal Animals is a very original film, quite different from anything you’re used to seeing, and that is a very good thing in this age of recycled plots and cookie-cutter formulas that make you feel like you’ve seen a movie before despite it being new. It won’t make you feel good, but at least you’ll know you’re doing better than Susan.