Tom Ford‘s Nocturnal Animals (based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright) is the kind of film that is great enough when you experience it, but gets even better when you think about it afterwards. Having seen it, I feel like a second viewing may be rewarding if you want to understand it fully and sufficiently appreciate all the subtle touches of its presentation. My third viewing will simply be because I loved it.
Nocturnal Animals tells its story through several layers. Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a Los Angeles-based artist with her own art gallery and a wealthy spouse with more looks than personality (Armie Hammer, as it were). A package reaches her office one day, sent by her ex-husband, a struggling writer named Edward Sheffield, containing a first draft of his first proper novel. For whatever reason, he has dedicated this thriller to Susan, even using his old nickname for her as its title – a “nocturnal animal”, he would call her.
The book opens on Tony Hastings (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) as he is driving through the Texas desert by night with his wife and child (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber). They have an increasingly nasty encounter with a bunch of redneck types, bossed around by the utterly unhinged Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson in what must be the greatest performance he will ever give). He and his goons first pry Tony off the road with their vehicle, and then offer to change one of his busted tires for him in what Glenn Kenny referred to as “one of the most discomfortingly suspenseful [sequences] in a Hollywood film since Blue Velvet“. The fact that it achieves this in spite of being (we assume) in-Universe fiction speaks volumes about Ford’s abilities as a filmmaker, not to mention the performances.
The altercation ends with Tony being separated from his family and left on his own in the middle of the desert. He manages to make his way to a small town and enlist the help Detective Bobby Andes (a stupendously entertaining Michael Shannon) to track down Marcus and his crew, but he soon finds out that there isn’t a happy end to this tale as the tale itself turns into one of cold revenge. Outside of said tale, more side characters exist, such as Susan’s disapproving mother played by Laura Linney, an artsy fashion disaster played by Jena Malone, and Zawe Ashton as a colleague of Susan’s who is too young to relate to Susan’s sudden feelings of having wasted her life.
In addition to the scenes set “in reality” and the parts that take place in Edward’s story, flashbacks from Edward and Susan’s time together start to appear as soon as Susan begins reading. There are numerous visual parallels between the narratives, which speaks to a larger thematic connection between the story of Tony and that of Edward’s history with Susan. Some of the scenes also involve shifts in tone and style – even genre – but it his handled with such prodigious skill that it never once feels jarring.
One of the most remarkable scenes in this movie, however, is its opening sequence, wherein a collection of nude, insanely overweight women are dancing seductively in slow-motion as a beautiful score plays and confetti rains over them. This is, of course, a part of Susan’s art installation, but its effect is very much felt by observers outside of the film’s universe. When we exited the theater, my brother wondered if this intro was meant to be a straightforward defiance of societal beauty norms or if it was rather a critique on “feminist propaganda” (the latter of which would have been more to his liking) and thus probably also a critique on provocative artists like Susan. Whatever the intent, I can admit to being mildly put off and befuddled at first, but quickly began to marvel at how visible uncomfortable all the other attendees at the screening were. In a strange way I admired it, and I knew the tone was set for the impending experience.
The film is also so delicate and meticulous in the way it looks. From all the subtleties in Amy Adams’ no less than Oscar-worthy performance to the clothes that her character chooses to wear at a given moment (Need I mention that Tom Ford is a fashion designer?), the character of Susan Morrow alone is the result of intricate, grade A craftmanship. Her co-stars are at least equally resplendent, and they are shot and lit with the grace of someone who truly knows a thing or two about eye-pleasing aesthetics. Some of the scenes set within Edward’s book do come off as a bit amateurish, but I feel as if there’s purpose behind it.
Nocturnal Animals is precise, beautiful, oftentimes shocking, briefly funny at the right times (thanks in no small part to Taylor-Johnson and Shannon), wonderfully depressing, and told to us with intricacy and cleverness. Its “story-within-a-story plus something else” structure made me think of Aronofsky’s The Fountain, but I have a feeling more people will appreciate how it’s done by Tom Ford.