It’s not particularly surprising that fashion entrepreneur, Tom Ford, made a film that is absolutely gorgeous. His sophomore effort, Nocturnal Animals, is both gorgeous and filled with despair, which will likely leave some at odds with the film. For those willing to plunge into a world of sadness, Ford has crafted a heartbreaking tale of what we lose when we mess up and what others can gain.
Amy Adams stars alongside an extraordinary cast that also consists of Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Armie Hammer, Isla Fisher, Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough. Sure, a cast that big ends up being pushed to the side, but their roles all feel somewhat crucial to the themes being explored. Michael Sheen plays a gay man who is married to a straight woman, but what matters is that you believe they are both happy in their relationship even though they do not get what is expected out of a marriage. They’re a couple introduced very early in the film, and leave almost as soon as they arrive, but they tee up the exploration of both Susan (Adams) and Tony (Gyllenhaal).
Susan is an art exhibitor who has been having trouble sleeping for a bevy of reasons, including the consistent absence of her current husband (Hammer). Her ex-husband, Tony, sends her a book entitled “Nocturnal Animals”, which she decides to read and has a very difficult time putting it down. In it, Edward (also played by Gyllenhaal) goes on a vacation only to find his wife and daughter abducted and him left out in the middle of a Texan wasteland. Ford parallels three different storylines against each other, as the book’s plot, Susan’s current predicament, and her past with Tony, are all cut between each other.
Admittedly, the book’s plot is perhaps the most entertaining as a straight-up thriller. But what could be interpreted as a revenge plot on the surface is so much more when you take into account the fact that the book was written by Susan’s ex-husband. It’s a tale that comes as a result of their relationship, and is further bolstered by a look back into their past leading up to their dissolution. In this way, Nocturnal Animals is more than just a simple exploration of sadness. Just by not following a traditional narrative structure, Ford makes the entire film into a thought exercise that is anchored with incredible performances.
Tonally, characters are much different depending on which piece of the narrative they’re in. For example, Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a crazy criminal in the novel section of the film, but he feels slightly too outlandish to be anything other than a literary character. The same can be said of Michael Shannon’s detective character, who is filled with dark humor, but will always say something that makes him feel slightly unbelievable. But the book is fiction derived from personal experiences, and that is what makes the performances believable enough to latch onto when the generic revenge thriller plot takes hold.
But it is also Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal (who both take on two different performances) that burn the brightest. Seeing Susan and Tony at the beginning of their relationship versus where Susan is at the end and where Edward is in the novel, cements the two as the MVPs of the film. Susan carries a hopefulness with Tony that is simply not present in her current life. You see the forces working against her, but it’s the sudden shifts to the present day that hit the hardest. Meanwhile, Tony’s almost-naivety is shown as a strength and a weakness throughout the film. If it wasn’t for the incredible acting, these characters would not feel as lived-in as they do.
It also aids Nocturnal Animals to have a dark score to underline everything. It’s lush and beautiful, all courtesy of Abel Korzeniowski who returns to score Ford’s film after working on A Single Man previously. He is equal parts responsible for the darkness of the film as the cinematography. Close-ups and muted shots make it difficult to feel anything other than a level of coldness. The opening scene itself is gorgeous, especially combined with Korzeniowski’s compositions. There are few movies this beautifully dark.
Nocturnal Animals is a movie that I have been thinking about for days since I’ve seen it. The way Ford decides to tell the story is ultimately far more effective than a straightforward narrative would have offered. Adams and Gyllenhaal shine as the couple turned sour, but I found myself gravitated to the film’s themes more than anything else. There is an understanding that loss does not mean the end, but that it is very easy to turn it into a final destination. It’s not a perfect film, but it is one with a lot to chew on.