Directed by: Tom Ford.
Written by: Tom Ford based on the novel by Austin Wright.
Starring: Amy Adams (Susan Morrow), Jake Gyllenhaal (Tony Hastings / Edward Sheffield), Michael Shannon (Bobby Andes), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ray Marcus), Isla Fisher (Laura Hastings), Ellie Bamber (India Hastings), Armie Hammer (Hutton Morrow), Karl Glusman (Lou), Robert Aramayo (Turk), Laura Linney (Anne Sutton), Andrea Riseborough (Alessia), Michael Sheen (Carlos), Jena Malone (Sage Ross).
Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is likely to anger a lot of its audience members – which is precisely the point, I think. Ford isn’t exactly being subtle about his intentions – opening his films with images of morbidly obese women – completely naked except for a hat or a sash, gyrating for the camera over the opening credits. Eventually, we will learn the reason for this – they are part of an art exhibit, at a trendy L.A. gallery, run by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). The whole exhibit isn’t just these video pieces, but the women themselves (or some sort of models), splayed out on benches around the gallery. Presumably, they are offering some sort of commentary about American consumption and consumerism – but who the hell can really tell anymore.
We will follow Susan for a while – her life an empty shell where the rot has set in and will not go away. She lives in a trendy house, with the perfect design, the perfect clothes, the perfect husband – Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) – all of which looks like it just stepped out of a fashion show. One day, a manuscript arrives for her – from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) – who she hasn’t spoken to in 20 years. He always wanted to be a writer, but never could. Now, it seems like he will be. The book is called Nocturnal Animals – and as Susan reads it, we flash to the action of the novel. On a desolate stretch of Texas highway, a family man, Tony (Gyllenhaal again), his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) run afoul of a trio of men, led by Ray (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), who run them off the road in the middle of the night. What follows is terrifying – and ends with a terrifying discovery by Edward –and the introduction of Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) – a detective, with a drawl and a cowboy hat, who will help him get justice. Throughout this all, we will flash to scenes of Susan’s modern life – her husband, who is cheating on her, and barely tries to hide it, the daughter who doesn’t seem to want much to do with her, and the gallery and her friends, full of L.A. caricatures, as well as scenes of Susan and Edward’s marriage – and how it all failed.
The stories are connected, obviously, but how? Remember, the scenes from Edward’s novel aren’t real – but are Susan’s projections of that novel, where she has essentially cast her ex-husband as Tony, a look-a-like for herself as his wife, and her daughter as their daughter. But is her reading of his novel, the reading he intends – does he see himself as Tony? (the name of the brilliant Austin Wright novel the film is based on is Tony and Susan, which implies something else). The scenes of Susan and Edward’s marriage provide more context, as to how we should view the events both of the novel, and of Susan’s life. From the beginning of the movie, a meeting between Susan and Edward is promised – one that will unlock, or at least spell out, all the mysteries that are being laid out.
As a filmmaker, Tom Ford has improved from his already gorgeous to look at debut film, A Single Man (2009) – in which Colin Firth plays a gay man, remembering the tragic loss of his boyfriend, the year before. Ford is a gifted stylist to be sure – and in Nocturnal Animals he plays with different styles, brilliantly. The present day L.A. scenes are brilliantly designed and over-the-top, almost to the point of parody (it doesn’t quite go all-into Neon Demon territory – but it’s not far off either). The Texas backwoods thriller is equally stylish and even better – in a completely different way. There are even a few touches in the more normal flashback scenes of Susan and Edward.
A film like Nocturnal Animals has a danger of being nothing but an exercise in style – and even if it’s a great exercise, those can growing wearying. I don’t think Nocturnal Animals entirely escapes that trap – but it does it enough, thanks to the great performances by its case. Amy Adams does a 180 here from her work in Arrival recently – that was a deeply felt, humane performance – and some of her best work. Here, she’s playing a woman who has entirely shut down – a beautiful, stylish shell, and little else – who we see these glimpses of something deeper in the flashbacks, and as she reads on in the novel. Gyllenhaal is even better as Edward/Tony – a man, in both, trying to hold on to what he loves – and being absolutely crushed. This continues his impressive run of performances. Michael Shannon once again shows why he’s arguably the best actor working today – his Bobby Andes is a riot, right up until he isn’t. With solid supporting work by Fisher and Taylor-Johnson, the film is well acted, and the characters enough to not get completely bulled over by the style.
Ford is, I think, trying to piss people in the audience off – but he’s doing so for a reason. Whether you think that reason is enough to justify everything he does, I’ll leave to you to decide. It was for me – even if the film borders on being too cynical for me – it never quite crosses over all the way. This is a film that sticks with you – no matter what you think of it.