Nocturnal Animals is Tom Ford’s sophomore feature and he ambitiously weaves dual narratives to pretty successful results.
Susan is a successful gallery manager, married to a wealthy businessman, who is absolutely drowning in depression even though her life has everything she could ever want. When her briefly married to ex-husband, Edward, drops a manuscript of his book in her mailbox, Susan spends a weekend digesting it. It is dedicated to Susan and named after his nickname for her, Nocturnal Animal, and we cut in between her imagination of the book and her reflecting on her courtship with Edward.
I don’t want to get into the plot of Edward’s manuscript, which is actually a pretty thrilling piece of cinema that unfolds, but that half of the film is a, sort of, crime thriller paired against a relationship tragedy in Susan’s flashbacks. Ford, for the most part, balances this storytelling quite effectively, and some of the seemingly wobbling scenes in the moment coalesced for me in the final few scenes of the film. It also took a bit to get into the rhythm of the film, it’s laying of the groundwork early on is the film’s weakest section, but it was all very necessary to let the rest of the film unfold the way it does. While talking about Ford, who wrote, produced and directed, he shoots a gorgeous film again and the guy clearly has a knack behind the camera; A Single Man was clearly not a fluke. The West Texas scenery is beautiful, and hauntingly, framed, while the cold world Susan is existing in makes you feel terrible for her even if she might deserve this world she’s encased herself in. Also, without spoiling, who pissed off Tom Ford and who does he want revenge on?
Ford’s script, well, his manuscript within a script, also really unsettled me, in that it was centered around a bunch of ignorant white men thinking they can do whatever they want. Feels too real at the moment, even if Aaron Taylor Johnson plays the main one of these guys as a borderline cartoon. People who think they have the right to do whatever they want, with little to no justification is one of the few things that scares me in this world, and I think Ford shares that view with me. The film also feels like a giant FU to the idea of masculinity in film/and the world(?) and how it doesn’t really show power by being a hard ass. It just might mean you are crazy, and it never accomplishes anything; even if you think you have good reason.
The cast of the film is quite the lineup, with everyone turning in top-notch work. Amy Adams stars as Susan and is a cold and mesmerizing presence on the screen. Lesser actors wouldn’t be able to sell the self seriousness of such an unlikable person, and she really flexes her range in the flashback sequences. Props to the makeup people who sell the weathered age gap in the timelines. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the ex, Edward, who we see in flashback with Susan, but he also plays the main character of Edward’s manuscript who has to try to not be “weak”. Gyllenhaal never plays the part big, he plays a guy stuck in between the macho expectations of a crime film and the kinder modern man of today, and I think he and Ford come down on that there really isn’t a way to meet the expectations of the world. Not to say that it’s all “poor men”, men suck, but I think Ford and his star explore this interesting struggle masculinity are going through. You could argue Adams’ Susan is approaching a similar feminine struggle too, but Gyllenhaal has a lot more to work with.
The other star of the film is Michael Shannon, playing a cop in the manuscript portion of the film, and he has a lot of fun playing up the idea of justice and what that really looks like in the real world. Shannon is always incredible to watch, and that is no different here. He sells the humor in some dark situations. Isla Fisher also deserves mention, in the best bit of confusion casting since Synecdoche, New York?, as the Susan surrogate in the manuscript that took me a scene to realize I wasn’t watching Adams. She is wonderful in her scenes, playing against her bubbly type to great effect.
Tom Ford became a director to watch with his first film and Nocturnal Animals doesn’t change that. While it doesn’t stack up to A Single Man, it is an often gripping and ambitious achievement by Ford. It almost didn’t quite come together, but I think it gets there, delivering a chilling and dark tale of revenge that is well worth your time if you are a fan of anyone involved.