Tom Ford is a Virgo, and everything he does reflects textbook traits of his sign: his products are sharp, observant, and meticulous. He exhibits impeccable style and substance. He’s a perfectionist, and it shows. His films are no exception, and his aesthetic serves them well. I seriously dug A Single Man, but I figured it was a one-off project after a few years passed without a follow up. I’m glad Ford proved me wrong: Nocturnal Animals is great. It’s also different; A Single Man is in essence a gentle and compassionate love story, whereas Nocturnal Animals is a bitter tale about a bad romance, regret, revenge, and closure with a comment on how art mirrors life. Certainly not a breezy endeavor, it offers quite a bit of food for thought.
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a study in contradictions, has all the material trappings of the glamorous life—too bad none of it brings her happiness. A rich and successful Los Angeles gallery owner, she hates what she does for a living. Her husband (Armie Hammer) is dashing but absent, offering more of an arrangement than a marriage. Part of the problem might be the bankruptcy he alludes to in one of their conversations early on. Or maybe it’s the transcontinental affair he’s carrying on in New York City. Their home is a chic box in the hills; Susan is alone in it—except for the hired help, of course.
A package arrives out of the blue from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). They haven’t spoken in years; their relationship did not end well. A simple guy she knew from growing up in Texas, she broke his heart with three horrible things she did—not the least of which was telling him he lacked what it takes to be a writer. Edward sent her the manuscript of his forthcoming novel, Nocturnal Animals, which he dedicates to her. He included a note stating that he will be in town and wants to meet her out.
Susan opens it and starts reading. Immediately, the story seduces her. Edward’s novel, depicted from her imagination as a film within the film, is a tragically violent work of pulp noir. Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) is driving down a dark desert highway in Texas with his wife (Isla Fisher) and their daughter (Ellie Bamber) when a band of hicks runs them off the road. Facing a menacing proposal, Tony tries to talk his way out. Sensing weakness, nefarious psychopath ringleader Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) exploits the situation and separates Tony from the girls. With one potential shot at saving his family, Tony blows it and ends up seeking help from the police. Officer Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a pithy cowboy with a badge, can’t comprehend why Tony didn’t put up a fight, but he helps track down the bastards so Tony can exact revenge.
Ford adapted his screenplay from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. What’s both interesting and distracting about Nocturnal Animals is the way he presents the story: he bounces back and forth between Susan’s present reality, her past, and Edward’s work of fiction that ties both together. It’s a very tricky feat, but he absolutely nails it with smooth transitions and masterful use of imagery and symbolism to connect the three narratives. Like most people (I suspect), I was far more interested in Tony than Susan even though Susan’s past and present are necessary to understand the story: Edward’s novel is a metaphor for his relationship with her. Many have complained about the ending, which is open to interpretation. I found it both realistic and satisfying whether Edward says “fuck you” to Susan or lets her off gently.
Visually, Nocturnal Animals is flawless. Ford’s sets, props, clothes, colors, and staging all work together with Seamus McGarvey’s dark and lovely cinematography to create a striking realm where naked fat ladies, a hick taking a dump, a bloody papercut, and discarded corpses are all things of beauty. The acting is superb all around, but Laura Linney is particularly exquisite in her brief role as Susan’s Lone Star Republican mother. All big-haired and dripping pearls and superiority, she sips her martini at an exclusive restaurant and urges Susan to forget about marrying a weak man like Edward. Fabulous!
(Landmark Century) B+