After his impressive directing debut A Single Man in 2009, fashion designer Tom Ford’s long awaited return as writer-director, Nocturnal Animals, shows that Ford is not afraid of a complicated, nebulous narrative that still manages to look stunning, especially in the costuming department. Based on the novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright, the film’s narrative device involves art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receiving the galleys of a new book written by her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t spoken to in years.
Susan is vaguely unhappy with both her life and her new marriage to womanizer Hutton (Armie Hammer, looking more handsome than any man has a right to), so the book’s arrival (and it’s dedication to her) seems like a bright spot. She begins to read it and discovers that it’s a story about a husband (also played by Gyllenhaal, this version bearded), his wife (Adams lookalike Isla Fisher), and their teen daughter (Ellie Bamber) who are collectively kidnapped by a bunch of Texas rednecks, led by a truly terrifying Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Before long, the husband is abandoned in the middle of the desert. He manages to make his way to civilization, and before long, Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon in a cowboy hat) is on the case.
The book’s brutal plot has a genuine impact on Susan’s psyche, and she finds herself remembering back to the earliest days of her first marriage, meeting Edward in grad school in New York, where she was studying art and he was a struggling writer. And eventually, Nocturnal Animals settles into a nice rhythm of moving between the present-day Susan, Susan with Edward, and the nasty little tale unspooling in the novel. Susan undoubtedly sees something familiar in the writing, but it’s never made clear if this story is based on real events, so perhaps it’s simply the vividness of Edward’s writing that is startling her. Even if the three stories are not directly connected, the juxtaposition seems to amplify the emotions in all three, and the end result is something quite stirring and unsettling.
A parade of familiar faces populate the two versions of Susan’s life, including characters played by Jena Malone, Michael Sheen, and, in a devastating scene between Susan and her mother, Laura Linney appears in the flashbacks as the matriarch, so disappointed in her daughter’s choice in a husband, primarily because he’s broke. Susan ignores her mother’s advice, but she also seems aware on some level that her words have infected her heart and mind to the point where it will impact the marriage down the line.
Gyllenhaal is rarely bad or unbelievable in any film, but he seems to grab these duel roles with both hands. They aren’t exactly two different characters, but they are men at wildly different times in their lives. As he often is, Shannon’s performance is from another planet, one where questionable Texas accents are used, but it’s alright because he is so completely mesmerizing regardless of the material. At a certain point in the story, Andes puts a challenge to Hastings as if the officer were the devil negotiating for the other man’s soul, even though they’re both the good guys.
Nocturnal Animals is a one-of-a-kind experience. It’s sexy, dangerous, horrific, and will linger with you long after it’s over. Don’t struggle too hard to make sensible connections among the three stories; this film is more about the cumulative energy and foreboding that it generates. Anchored by some of the best performances you’ll see all year and in the hands of one of the most confident directors (which is surprising, since it’s only his second effort), the movie is about ramping up the emotion, bringing it to a searing boil, and releasing the tension (if you’re lucky) in a gasp of relief. I hope Ford doesn’t wait seven years between film again, but if he does, it’s clearly worth it.
The film has a limited release and opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema as well as the AMC River East 21.