Director: Tom Ford
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams
Length: 1hr 57m
It’s been seven years since Tom Ford made his directorial debut in widely praised fashion with the Colin Firth-starring A Single Man. He now returns with the almost painfully gripping Nocturnal Animals, having gained himself positive reviews on the road at the London and Venice film festivals and winning the Grand Jury Prize at the latter. The film itself is both a complex drama and a thrilling tale-within-a-tale of broken hearts and broken skulls, all dressed in a thick layer of pure cinematic style.
The plot primarily revolves around Susan (Amy Adams), a wealthy art gallery owner in a long-term relationship with Hutton (Armie Hammer), but all is not well. Their house looks more like an office building than a home, helping to establish the apparent emptiness that goes with her anxious mood at the beginning of the film. She is a woman dissatisfied with her life and work, likely not helped by Hutton’s suspected infidelities. These details help to sketch her character but are not lingered on, for the dramatic meat of Nocturnal Animals is only brought out when Susan begins to read a novel written and sent to her by her ex-husband Edward. They have not seen each other for nigh on two decades, yet he has decided to not only send her the manuscript but to dedicate it to her.
From here we dive into the utterly compelling Nocturnal Animals novel storyline, which sees Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) plunged into a horrific mess of fear, brutality, and revenge after he and his family (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber) are forced into a menacing encounter with a group of fiendishly grinning thugs. Thug-in-chief here is played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, delivering his threats with a dose of warped charm and humour that makes you both squirm and shake with his cruel tricks.
This kind of nasty thriller propelled by vengeance and violence does feel somewhat familiar; the embittered detective, the harming of a man’s wife and kids, the questions over vigilante “justice”. Yet for the most part it hardly matters when the filmmaking is of such a high order. Ford peppers his overwhelmingly dark narrative with great moments of humour throughout, while on the more serious side Gyllenhaal’s performance excellently captures the battles of an ordinary man creaking under the weight of the search for justice, psychological scarring, and his own guilt. Michael Shannon’s detective Bobby Andes is given an emotional depth that helps us to connect more fully to a section of the film that we are ultimately aware is just somebody’s fiction. The ease with which we forget how unimportant all this could seem is a testament to how immersive the film is.
Having said that, the other reason we can look past the odd cliché in the novel is that we are still aware it has been written by one of the characters. As the film progresses the novel timeline is intercut with a fraught Susan becoming increasingly keen on working out what this all means. On its own the thriller element offers nothing new, but here there is the big, looming question of why Edward would write such an intensely violent, seemingly unconnected book for his ex-wife. To help answer this question we glimpse the start and end of Edward and Susan’s marriage. Gyllenhaal plays Edward as well as Tony, helping to connect the two narrative strands. The film as a whole can be taken as an intriguing mystery that is never really solved. Could Edward’s novel be his admission of guilt? The guilt she should feel perhaps? A veiled threat? Revenge? Does the brutal, hard and upfront nature of the novel reflect Edward kicking back against the perceived “weakness” that dogged his relationship with Susan? These many possibilities help to give the film power beyond the credits and beg for a re-watch, but Ford holds so much back that the connections sometimes feel a little too elusive, meaning the film veers towards a lack of overall substance. Perhaps more time should have been spent with Susan grappling with the various possibilities. One benefit of this would have been to give Adams even more to work with, as in the scenes she has she holds the various elements of the film together very well indeed.
It feels achingly predictable to finish reviewing a film made by a world-renowned fashion designer by talking about how stylish it is, but it simply must be said. Firstly, the clothes and set designs are wonderful; Susan’s storyline is full of rich, attractive people looking suitably rich and attractive whilst everyman-looking Tony’s horrific ordeal is split between a punishing rural landscape and dark, potentially blood-soaked interiors. This is complemented by the great work of DoP Seamus McGarvey, producing gorgeous shots in every situation, whether it be the blood-red curtains, the sun-baked Texas landscape, or the stunning overhead complex of roads in the film’s opening. This is enhanced even further by Abel Korzeniowski’s grand classical score that helps to build the emotional current of the film. It is style like this that elevates each strand of Nocturnal Animals. Whether it is in the family drama of the flashbacks, the twisted, visceral intensity of the novel, or the building sense of mystery and unease of the present day, Ford’s film delivers. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another seven years for the next one.