Nocturnal Animals is Tom Ford’s latest directorial offering, and man, is it a good one. Elegant as ever, where A Single Man was quiet and reposed, Nocturnal Animals is raw and open. This is a savage film which has no reverence for its protagonist. Its natural state of introspection is punctuated by the telling of its story-within-a-story. Whilst neither storyline overshadows the other, we never forget the overarching predicament that our lead character has found herself in.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) – beautiful, elegant but crumbling inside, crushed by loneliness. Her husband, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer), has checked out financially and emotionally. Susan receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), the man she married for love, and the man she left for reality. The book is called Nocturnal Animals. The dedication reads, “For Susan.” The story is as follows: a man named Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) are accosted by a group of men on an interstate highway in Texas. The group, led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), go on to rape and murder the wife and daughter. We follow Tony’s journey to justice with the help of Lieutenant Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). We watch Susan read the ominous book as she reflects on her past and present.
This is the first time I’ve been emotionally affected by a film in a long time. All I want to do right now is sit back and stare at the ceiling. And write. And listen to the soundtrack. However, I was a little unsure at the start of the film. It felt very empty – a sentiment that certainly was not aided by the impeccable cinematography, cold colour palette and intimidating set design. But once the story got going, I couldn’t tear myself away. Once again, Tom Ford manages to balance the stark emotional struggles of an inhibited character, with the story of the “real world”, looming in the background.
We are effectively hoping for Susan to reunite with her ex-husband for the entirety of the film, but Nocturnal Animals has no sympathy for her. And we now know, more than ever, that Susan will never meet Edward again. Edward has grown into the man she wanted him to be, but conversely, he has outgrown the woman she turned out to be. In a story about growth and cruelty, Ford delves into the heart of a relationship and where it left its occupants. There was never going to be another ending, and I’m thankful that Ford was kind enough to offer what he did.
Two stories side by side, we see the abject horror that Susan subjected Edward to. And we see what she culminated to – more like her mother every day, further from happiness every day. We also see that Edward is more like Susan’s current husband than we once thought. He is now the man in the book, no longer the man she knew. It is her burden to carry this guilt. She knows it, suffers it and he is strong enough to inflict it. This is the story of two destinies realised.
Ford appears to have an affinity with beautiful and lonely characters. They are alluring, they are isolated, they are at a dead end. And we are there with them, at the end of the world. His movies are at once rich and desolate. There are so many different elements that add up to this experience, I can see his work as a director – uniting all these forces to create one cohesive experience. Where do I begin?
The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Anna Karenina) is just gorgeous.The plot of Nocturnal Animals says something about relationships and personal growth, but its cinematography tells a complementary story of loneliness and age. From the dark, distilled life that Susan leads; to the barren deserts of Texas, filled with horror and beauty: he does it all and he does it bloody well. Abel Korzeniowski (A Single Man) returns with another score I no doubt will be listening to for years to come, just as I did with A Single Man. It’s opulent, elegant and scary. Far out. Do yourself a favour and listen to his stuff because words can’t describe the feelings he creates. In his own words: “The cold and detached intertwines with poignant and excruciating, the simple and intimate becomes grand and bold.”
Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal lead this film to great heights. Pitiable but perfect, Adams plays Susan so well. As an audience member I wanted to sympathise with her, but also knew that this was the life she chose for herself. You can see the difference in her as she warms to Edward, as she defends him to her mother (Laura Linney), and as she dolls herself up to meet him again. The same goes for Gyllenhaal, who is one of the only actors in Hollywood who consistently plays Oscar-worthy roles that aren’t Oscar bait, and of course, doesn’t get nominations. The contrast between Edward and Tony (the character in the book) are evident, and so are their similarities. Meeting Edward at different points in time, playing different versions of himself is just masterfully handled by Gyllenhaal. Of course Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson held their own. I am particularly happy to see Taylor-Johnson finally get a good role in a good film, rather than a good role in a shitty film or vice versa. In a production that could easily toe the line of pretension, the actors ground the story and dare you to engage in Susan’s self-absorbed, guilt-ridden world.
A Single Man was about drowning in real time. Nocturnal Animals is about regret and fear. If Tom Ford ever had to prove himself after A Single Man, he has done it. This film performs a subtle study of character through the horrific allegory of one man’s overwhelming loss. Imagine receiving a novel dedicated to you, where your hypothetical life is ripped apart before your eyes. Watch Nocturnal Animals.
Nocturnal Animals (2016): 9.5/10
This review nearly turned into a screencap compilation, so I’ve compiled the rest into a slideshow for your enjoyment. Enjoy. (You will.)