Film Review: Nocturnal Animals

by Carrie Kahn on November 18, 2016

Ford’s newest picture well worth the wait     

West Texas ne’er-do-well Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, middle) warily answers questions from lawman Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, l.) and crime victim Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal, r.).

Tom Ford, the American fashion designer turned filmmaker who first garnered accolades for his cinematic talents back in 2009 with his Colin Firth-helmed picture A Single Man, finally returns seven years later with his follow up, another film inspired by a novel. With Nocturnal Animals, based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Ford again both directs and writes the screenplay, and proves that his first success was no fluke. Ford’s patient fans have been rewarded for their long wait with another visually stunning, captivating picture.

Nocturnal Animals, which takes its title from the nickname Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) gave his insomniac ex-wife Susan (Amy Adams) back when they were briefly married, is actually comprised of two separate, equally compelling, and, as we’ll find out, parallel, connected stories. In the framing story, Susan, now a Los Angeles art gallery owner unhappily married to a slick and pretty financier husband (Armie Hammer), receives a manuscript (also titled Nocturnal Animals) from Edward, her writer ex-husband with whom she has not spoken in almost 20 years.

As Susan begins to read Edward’s manuscript, its plot comes alive to us on screen. In this story-within-the-story, Gyllenhaal also portrays its protagonist, Tony, who, one evening while driving along a highway in West Texas (where, not so coincidentally, both Edward and Susan grew up) with his wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber), is confronted and terrorized by a trio of unhinged, brutally violent locals (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, and Robert Aramayo), in a manner reminiscent of Deliverance. Later, a no-nonsense lawman (Michael Shannon, excellent as usual) will help a distraught Tony apprehend the perpetrators and bring them to justice, Texas-style.

Susan (Amy Adams) is very beautiful and very sad.

To say more will give away much of the awe of watching both stories unfold, as both do so – especially the Texas scenes – with an often unbearable, but masterful, tension. How Edward’s tale of Tony and his family relates to Susan and Edward’s past slowly and deliciously becomes clear over the course of the well-paced film. Viewers who can stick out the more uncomfortable moments will thus be rewarded with a picture that not only delivers a tale of revenge of Shakespearean proportions, but does so within Ford’s trademark highly-stylized, visually appealing set pieces. The film is worth recommending alone just for the incredible fashions Ford designs for Susan’s art gallery colleagues and patrons, in what has to be a winking nod to audiences who perceive such a crowd as pretentious and over the top already. Adams herself, as Susan, is nearly unrecognizable in many scenes here, her fresh-faced, girl next door look muted under heavy, dark make up, sleek hair, and the sophisticated, expensive, designer clothes of a wealthy gallery owner.

That Susan’s look contrasts so starkly with Gyllenhaal’s struggling writer Edward – decked out in cheap flannel shirts and workaday wear – underscores the division that has grown between them, as well as Ford’s themes of creativity, passion, class, strength, and ambition. At one point in a flashback scene, we see Susan’s mother (an icy Laura Linney, playing a disproving southern matron to the hilt) prophetically warn Susan about her engagement to Edward: “The things you love about him now you will come to hate.”

Indeed, as we see the dissolution of Susan’s relationship with Edward and come to understand its role in the tale Edward has spun, we alternate between empathizing with Susan and with Edward. Ford’s film is so well-crafted that the flashback, present day, and story-within-a-story scenes are seamlessly woven, and we are never confused, only constantly engaged as our emotions and sympathies shift and surprise.

Detective Andes (Michael Shannon, l.) has a few words with suspect Lou (Karl Glusman).

Ford also elicits powerful performances across the board, although Adams and Shannon are stronger at bringing complex layers of psychology to their roles compared to Gyllenhaal, who feels a bit one note in some of his scenes. And Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as the suspect with the most screen time, plays violent sociopathy so well that you may begin to wonder about the actor’s own mental health.

If we have to wait another seven years for Ford’s next picture, based on what he’s done here, the wait will be worth it. He’s proven himself to be a filmmaker with both a unique aesthetic and vision, and a firm grasp of how to deftly relay the nuances of our unceasing human drama.

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Nocturnal Animals opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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