With Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford seems compelled to make up for lost time. Seven years after the success of the fashion designer’s directorial debut A Single Man, Ford’s second feature merges two noir tales into a single multifaceted narrative, dancing through time and multiple fictions. Haunting, by turns icy and anguished, it’s an unsettling and exquisite study of failure, loss and revenge.
Nocturnal Animals is adapted from Tony and Susan, a novel by Austin Wright. Amy Adams is the film’s anchor, gallery curator Susan Morrow. Moving in the upper echelons of the Los Angeles art world, Susan’s success is teetering on the brink. Her marriage to her suavely handsome business partner Hutton is in free fall, and the lavish cocoon of her life is an unsustainable façade. She receives a manuscript in the mail, a novel called “Nocturnal Animals” written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal, in the first of two roles in the film). With her husband off to New York for a dubious business trip, unable to sleep, Susan settles in to read.
The book unfolds the harrowing story of Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal again, Susan merging her husband’s identity with his fictional protagonist) and how he lost his wife and child. Driving his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and his daughter India (Ellie Bamber) for a vacation in west Texas, they run afoul of a trio of redneck miscreants with a nasty case of road rage. Their leader Ray, in a remarkable and disturbing turn from Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass, Godzilla, Avengers: Age of Ultron), runs Tony’s car off the road, then proceeds to threaten and demean Tony before peeling away with his family. Tony escapes his henchman minder, and eventually makes a safe getaway, but he is the only one.
The telling of this tense and violent tale jumps beautifully back and forth between Tony’s fraught confrontation and Susan’s emotionally wracked reactions as she turns the pages. Images from one thread merge with the next, and soon Susan is also remembering the early days of her relationship with Edward. Bumping into each other in New York, the two recall their mutual childhood crushes. Before long they’re very much in love, she an artist returning to school to study art history, he an aspiring writer working at a book store. But the relationship’s subtle cracks figure early. In an exquisite scene, Susan talks to her mother Anne about falling for Edward. Played with weary wealthy hauteur by Laura Linney, the single scene captures a lifetime of mother-daughter conflict. Anne warns Susan Edward’s romanticism won’t be enough for her, that in the end his ideals will just signal his weakness. Susan’s indignant, furious, and determined to live her own life. Yet clearly this battle was a war her mother won, as the contemporary Susan surveys her empty mansion and her dissolving second marriage, casting her mind back to the defeat of her first.
In the world of the novel, Tony slowly wins the trust of detective Bobby Andes, played with brilliant off-putting humor by Michael Shannon. The two set out to find his wife and daughter. That quest ends in calamity, but the detective vows to help the distraught Tony get justice. For her part, Susan decides to see her ex-husband again, old emotions rekindling as she’s haunted by the strange parallels of their life together and his violent fictional recasting.
Beautifully shot and composed by Seamus McGarvey with a stunning score by Abel Korzeniowski, Nocturnal Animals mines the noir territory of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, minus David Lynch’s horrific surrealism. The timelines of the criss-crossing narratives aren’t opaque, but Ford’s motivation in presenting them can be. Ultimately, Nocturnal Animals is a film about weakness, about a man who wants to be a hero but can’t rise to the occasion, and a woman who regrets surrendering her true love for a life of comfort that’s gone cold.
Nocturnal Animals opens with the garish juxtaposition of obese naked women dancing to a lush score, brandishing cheerleading accoutrements. The images are bizarre, almost comical, a satirical send-up of visual expectation that turns out to be part of Susan’s latest curated art show. Ford’s film upends noir expectations, too. A classic noir motif is the weak, wounded hero, perfectly captured in Jake Gyllenhaal’s overwrought performance as Tony. Yet the film largely portrays itself from the point of view of its femme fatale, Susan, who betrayed the real hero Edward years before. Tony and Bobby Andes find the bodies of his wife and child, naked, arranged in each other’s arms on a shocking red couch. In her memories of their marriage, Susan dismissively insults Edward and his writing, ensconced on a similar brilliant red couch. The connections are direct, but distant, echoes of memory that signal betrayal and loss. The fictional Tony’s revenge consumes him, justice attained but the act of violence too much. Susan becomes the film’s ultimate victim, however, Edward’s “Nocturnal Animals” an act of revenge from beyond their relationship’s grave. With nothing but words on paper, Edward makes Susan feel all the loss he felt, leaving her bereft and exposed. As the film draws to a close, Susan confronts the cold reality that her loneliness is her doing, and hers alone.