Writer/Director: Tom Ford
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Armie Hammer, Michael Sheen, Jena Malone
If you thought fashion designer Tom Ford was going to be a one-hit wonder director after his exquisite film A Single Man then think again. He is back with his razor-sharp eye with Nocturnal Animals. He pulls triple duty by being one of the film’s producers and having written the script which has been adapted from Austin Wright’s book Tony and Susan. Amy Adams plays art dealer Susan Morrow who continues to be unhappy in life. Her latest gallery showing is unlike anything else you’ve seen before, but the strong feedback doesn’t mean much to her. She’s in a lackluster marriage to her husband, Hutton (Hammer), who happens to be cheating on her. Even being filthy rich doesn’t bring her happiness. Shortly after her opening, she receives a manuscript in the mail written by her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal). He proclaims in the accompanying letter that she has now given him the motivation to finish his book. The timing is suspicious and leaves Susan a little startled. When she starts reading it in bed, she realizes all too soon that it touches too close to home.
Nocturnal Animals acts as two movies, the one with Susan’s troubled life and how she reacts to Edward’s book and the other detailing the events of the book. We know this thanks to Gyllenhaal appearing in both. The Susan storyline flashes back to what happened in their marriage to justify the reactions she has as she’s reading the book. The book opens with a scene of road rage with Gyllenhaal playing a man named Tony who is left stranded in the desert when his wife (here played by Isla Fisher) and daughter are taken by three hillbillies looking for trouble. He is able to make it into town and works with the local sheriff (Shannon) to find them. The sheriff is a man of few words but finds himself facing his final days. This gives him a care-free attitude to take any measures possible to help Tony track and take down Ray Marcus (Johnson) who was the ringleader behind it all.
Let me start off by stating that it never gets confusing switching between the two storylines. The Susan storyline is set in the posh Los Angeles scene, which drastically contrasts the dark and barren Texas desert that finds Tony on the hunt for his wife and daughter. As you can imagine, Tom Ford, being the designer that he is, has a way with color, pattern, and texture. Along with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, The Hours), they make every frame look like a beautiful picture that could tell its own story. You could watch the movie on mute and understand every character, every life choice, and every emotion that exudes form the screen. It’s not necessarily a spoiler to state that the novel acts as Edward’s revenge on Susan for the way their marriage ended. It’s all about the choices we make in life as Susan starts to reflect on the choices she has made thus far and how they all seem to be crashing down upon her. In early scenes she seems to defy the life her mother (an aged Laura Linney) wants from her. The mother character is the definition of the rich and privileged white person. Maybe it’s coincidental timing, but there are certain morals discussed between them that bear a resemblance to the average Trump supporter.
Ford went for more of a slow burn approach in telling this story of love, revenge, and murder. There seems to be more of a focus on the Tony storyline than Susan’s. There are long periods of time where we stay on him in the desert trying to solve that mystery. This may be intentional to drive home just what the Susan character did to Edward. I think Ford could have kept the pace up a bit more if each story would have been given more equal measure. For me, it feels more jarring and seems to work better when he shifts back and forth quickly between the two worlds. I’ve never read the book Tony and Susan, and I would be intrigued to see how close Ford kept his script to the source material.
I recently praised Amy Adams for her performance in Arrival. I will continue to praise her strengths as Susan is completely different than that character in every way. Susan is depressed and Adams brings out the emptiness and loneliness that is present despite living in a huge materialistic world where she has been given everything. She pairs really well with Jake Gyllenhaal, and I’m surprised they haven’t starred opposite each other before. You completely get the attraction between the two characters in the flashback scenes. It’s another tour de force performance for Gyllenhaal who continues to go full throttle with each movie he leads. He spends a majority of the film as Tony is the depiction of Edward’s novel. It’s a raw and open performance where you can just feel the guttural cries of agony Tony goes through. It could be an Oscar-caliber performance if the film does well.
Gyllenhaal and Adams aren’t the only actors worth watching in the film. Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are equally captivating in supporting roles. Shannon has had an extremely busy year given his work in two Jeff Nichols films (Midnight Special and Loving) and as the King of Rock and Roll in Elvis & Nixon. He’s a great supporting character actor that adds just enough in any given role to be memorable but not steal the complete movie. As Sheriff Bobby, there is just enough fire inside him to make him an unpredictable force. Shannon’s target in the story is Aaron Taylor-Johnson who’s probably best known his work in Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Kick-Ass movies. He is so sleazy, dirty, and vile as the man who took Tony’s wife that you can’t help but hate his character. It’s the perfect kind of role for a young actor like him to show off the psychotic characters he can take on. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind hearing Oscar talk for his performance.
Tom Ford has crafted an exceptionally riveting film that will no doubt take the audience for a rollercoaster of a ride. There are moments that are guaranteed to make you cringe in seat, while other images are breathtakingly gorgeous. It has the film noir feel while taking place in a contemporary setting. You may leave a little puzzled just wondering what you witnessed on screen, but Tom Ford puts plenty out there to wrestle with in terms of its imagery and concepts. With only two films under the belt, he has proven himself worthy of the highest accolades and can be compared to other stylized visionaries like David Fincher or the Coen Brothers.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Get ready for one exhilarating film.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 TICKET STUBS