Directed by: Tom Ford
Written by: Tom Ford (screenplay), Austin Wright (novel)
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Shannon, Isla Fisher
Statements like “Hitchcock meets David Lynch” or “Coen Brothers mixed with Nicholas Winding Refn” could come off as nothing but meaningless hyperbole, but these could not be more applicable to Tom Ford’s second feature Nocturnal Animals. His marriage of vibrant imagery with dramatic storytelling prove to be his greatest feat in this ambitious film of lustful vengeance. It’s a hypnotic spell Ford casts upon us, one where we can’t help but succumb to its dark temptations and cruel behaviors.
As we enter the disturbingly perfect world of art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) and the inhabitants she identifies with, the hollow beauty is indeed very reminiscent of Refn’s The Neon Demon from earlier this year. But while the luxuries seem endless, Susan feels unfulfilled, highlighted by the arising issues with husband Hatten (Armie Hammer). After he leaves for a business trip, Susan begins reading a manuscript of the new novel titled “Nocturnal Animals” by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) who dedicated the book to her. Isolated in a picturesque empty house, Susan dives into the story which becomes the second narrative of the film.
In the way we conjure up characters in a story to the liking of our imagination, Susan sees protagonist Tony as her ex-husband. He’s going on a road trip with a wife and daughter through West Texas. The wife is a strikingly similar redhead to Susan but not exactly the same. Their journey on a long highway at night is brought to a halt by a nefarious group (lead by an exceptionally chilling Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who force an accident where their cars end up on off the side of the road. What starts as obnoxious gloating quickly escalates to violent terror. The glossy aesthetic of Susan’s life contrasts the grit and grime of Edward’s novel. This murkiness feels like a Cormac McCarthy story and its natural splendor exposes the remoteness and lack of safety. All of the scenes in this story feel real, like we’re right there and experiencing the danger firsthand.
Whenever things get real ugly, we immediately cut back to Susan, allowing her and the viewer a moment to breathe. This back and forth cutting, impeccably edited by Joan Sobel, gives the film a nice rhythm. We’re seeing two worlds mirror one another visually and thematically. Susan acknowledges that Edward used to refer to her as a nocturnal animal, forcing us to look for clues which link the story to Susan. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the rise and fall of Susan and Edward’s relationship. While she has an adoration for art, she does not see herself as an artist. Certainly not in the way Edward sees himself, suggesting their foretold inevitability. His creativity equates to vulnerability, declaring him weak when Susan clearly wants something more out of a husband. Other dark secrets come to light, revealing a troubled past where the exchange of the manuscript becomes the only form of communication in years.
While the dark novel proves a discomfort at times, it is nonetheless riveting which is why Susan picks it up again. Michael Shannon is fantastic in the story as the slightly unhinged Texas Ranger Bobby Andes and the novel reads like a trashy fun potboiler. Whether or not Susan sees her influence in the writing, she can’t put the book down. But we the audience can see how the two worlds compliment one another and uncover their shortcomings.
Ford’s visual eye is undeniable, but his handle of Tony’s story showcases pulp thrills in a noir-ish manner. Having this juxtaposed with Susan’s narrative displays a wonderful contrast with enough detail and subtleties for people to discuss in depth after watching. The intricacy of the two plots makes for a fascinating experience which should only grow on repeat viewing.
Where the film ends may be satisfying or groan-inducing (based on reactions after my own experience) but will certainly leave a lot to contemplate. Understanding Edward’s character solely from Susan’s perspective provides a lot into the essence of Tony and all of his flaws. This is not the first time Gyllenhaal has played two characters in the same movie and his range is truly admirable. As gorgeous as this film is on a surface level, it revels in its wickedness. Maybe too out there for real Oscar consideration, but if you’re along for the ride you might find yourself swept up in its intoxicating allure. — James Leggett