Tom Ford is getting really good at this whole cinema thing. The world-famous fashion designer made his debut as a film director in 2009 with A Single Man, which featured tremendous design and a surprisingly big emotional punch. Nocturnal Animals marks his second feature, and is a very different kind of movie, one that showcases an impressive range of style and demonstrates that when it comes to the cinematic, Ford is as skilled with a camera as anyone out there.
Besides being a two-hour commercial for glasses, the movie focuses on two main plots. First, there’s Amy Adams as Susan, who runs an art gallery, has a husband (Armie Hammer) who is always away doing “deals,” and is generally sad despite “having it all.” She receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward, and the secondary plot intercut with Susan’s is her experience of reading this novel, a thriller which features Jake Gyllenhaal as Tony, a man driving at night to his summer home with his wife and daughter.
Let’s start with the story within the story. Tension is quickly established when the most foreboding of signs is revealed: the Texas highway Tony and his family are on has no cell phone service. When they encounter a car of rowdy young hooligans, led by the disturbing and unhinged Aaron Taylor-Johnson, there’s no one to call for help. The handling of this sequence is so well executed that it bears the sign of a great internal story, making us forget for a while that this is all taking place in the imagination of Susan as she reads Edward’s manuscript. When we return to her reality, it comes with an appropriate jolt.
What keeps us invested in this novel, aside the its story being compelling in and of itself, is that we don’t know initially, maybe at all, what Susan’s reaction to it is. That makes the two stories, between which the movie goes back and forth, feed off of each other, which is quite a clever structure. We learn about Susan and Edward’s history primarily through the look on Adams’ face while reading, then in occasional flashback scenes interspersed throughout, where Edward is also played by Gyllenhaal, which in turn makes us wonder how the Tony story relates to their relationship. After all, the book is dedicated to Susan, and Tony’s wife is played by Isla Fisher, a clear stand-in for Adams, in some inspired casting.
It would be very easy to Susan’s story to fall into the “person who has everything but is still not happy” mode that is almost always, frankly, a bore. The Tony plot prevents this though, as do scenes providing amusing satire of Los Angeles art culture. When Michael Shannon gets introduced as the detective helping Tony investigate the events of that night, things begin to take a turn. We get the sense that Edward is revealing himself in ways that are meant to evoke…what exactly? There are glimpses into Susan’s interpretation of the story, one spelled out in a hanging art piece even, but we always get the sense that there’s more we haven’t been told yet, and there is.
Nocturnal Animals doesn’t hinge on their performances the way A Single Man benefited from, if not relied upon, masterful work by Colin Firth, but Adams and Gyllenhaal do mighty fine work nonetheless. Both play people who are on the edge of utter breakdowns but exhibit this in starkly different ways: Adams by trying desperately to keep it together, at least on the outside, and Gyllenhaal through brief outbursts of terrifying rage and pain. Then we have Michael Shannon, who is always a joy to watch, drawing laughter through the sheer lunacy and specificity of his characters, but always exuding complete realness in the moment. His character plays like something of a key to unlocking the comments this movie makes about the concept of strength. It’s a quality that those with money and power are drawn to, but it’s often more a sign of a person lacking in areas, an obsessive narcissist with no regard for other people and, most importantly, with nothing to lose.
All this textual detail simply gives added depth to a movie that is an aesthetic dream. But there’s more to it than just design and photography, which are there in spades. Ford has mastered not one but two tremendously compelling and fabulously peculiar vibes in Nocturnal Animals that work well separately and even better together. The idea that beauty and sadness go hand in hand has never been more striking.
Nocturnal Animals confirms Tom Ford as an essential director, as he gives us two dazzling stories that combine for one powerful movie experience.