Nocturnal Animals is the second film by fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford, and comes seven years after his debut drama A Single Man. Any skepticism about Ford’s ability as a rookie filmmaker were put to rest with his aforementioned debut due in large part to his mastery of the cinematic style and narrative substance of Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name. Ford’s direction not only brought a photographic sheen to a substantive story with compelling characters, it produced excellent performances especially from Colin Firth who received his very first Academy Award nomination for his role as George Falconer. In the rare stunning debut that was A Single Man, Ford’s future in cinema following the release of the film was a future of interest.
7 years later, Ford returns with Nocturnal Animals, an adaptation of Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. The premise surrounds Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a disenchanted wealthy artist living in the fallout of a fading marriage, a deteriorated family/social life and a unfulfilling career. Amy Adams portrays the insecurities, regret and inner failings of Susan while moving past her “nice girl” typecast (i.e.: Catch Me If You Can, Doubt) in favor of the dark, more complex roles she has diversified herself in more recent years (The Fighter, American Hustle). In doing so, Susan becomes a vessel for a jaded audience who made the smart decision only to long for the more exciting ones. Susan effectively is a person who chose pragmatic cynicism over hopeful optimism, and has come to regret the various decisions she has made on such a basis, which are no doubt ideas fostered by her elitist, domineering mother (played strongly by Laura Linney).
Susan’s life is the narrative frame in which the film is set. This frame opens with an artistic collage of unsightly nudity that is Susan’s allusion to the repellent, junky excess of American sexual freedom and superficial accessory. Coming home to her distant, apathetic husband Hutton (Armie Hammer), it becomes clear that Susan’s marriage is in shambles, waiting for the final crack of Hutton’s infidelities. Unexpectedly, Susan is sent a manuscript from her estranged ex-husband Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) titled “Nocturnal Animals,” which was also a pet name he gave to her. Susan begins to read the novel, which centers around Edward, a sheepish father (also portrayed by Gyllenhaal), who after a roadside scuffle with three troublemaker criminals (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo), engages in a confrontation that ends in the rape and murder of his wife and daughter. An emotionally broken, and consistently edgy Edward is guided by Detective Bobby Andes (played by the humorously dry yet severe Michael Shannon), an unconventional and bitterly sullen cop at the end of his rope, devoted to pursuing the men responsible.
The narrative of the film cuts in between Susan’s life, her reading of the novel and flashbacks exploring the circumstances of her relationship with Tony, which is characterized by the dichotomy of Susan’s battle with “realistic” cynicism and dreamy optimism. Her choice of the former leads her to commit an act of betrayal that form the basis of her failed marriage with Hutton and initially unbeknownst to Susan, the basis of Tony’s novel. Ford’s narrative approach carefully layers the dynamics of novel fantasy, and past and present reality. In doing so, Nocturnal Animals becomes an allegorical revenge tale that uses riveting Hitchcockian tropes, found in the film’s story-within-a-story depiction, to heighten the audience’s thirst for thrills while the true story falls within the reality of Tony’s intentions of sending Susan a copy. The ending makes Edward’s intentions perfectly clear: to show Susan that his artistic success and his indifference to the failures of her own is the revenge he is serving coldly to her as sits alone, waiting with the unfulfilled anticipation of a dinner with him.
As with Ford’s previous drama, the story is striking just for its dramatic tensions and presented in a unique yet purposeful manner. Stylistically, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography brings out the lush beauty of the superficial, the cold hollowness of the unbridled capitalistic ambition, the dark emptiness of a lonely surroundings and the brooding, foreboding harsh realities of the American west. The film is weaved together with exacting precision by Joan Sobel, and scored delectably by Abel Korzeniowski. The performances are all quite above par including Jake Gyllenhaal’s pained repression, Amy Adams’ silent inner emptiness, Michael Shannon’s moroseness, Laura Linney’s snobbish conceit and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s psychopathic madness. With everything exactly in its right place, Tom Ford has created an unforgettable neo-noir thriller worthy of the tradition of Hitchcock, Polanski, Lynch and the Coens, not to mention a step forward for himself. Despite setting a high bar with his previous debut, Ford rises to the occasion in greater fashion than before.