When fashion designer Tom Ford made his directorial debut with 2009’s A Single Man, he brought a distinctive visual style that, when combined with his surprisingly strong script, showed that he could do more than rule the fashion world. It’s taken seven years for Ford to deliver a follow-up, but Nocturnal Animals not only proves that A Single Man wasn’t a fluke, but also makes a strong case that Ford is capable of far more than even his first film would suggest.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is an art dealer who’s become detached from her life, including her marriage to Hutton (Armie Hammer). One day, she receives a package from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), containing a manuscript entitled Nocturnal Animals, which he’s dedicated to her. With Hutton leaving town on business, Susan begins to read through Edward’s story, which centers around a man named Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) who, while traveling with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber), gets attacked by a trio of hicks led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). After Tony’s wife and daughter are kidnapped by the group, he works with officer Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to help find his family. As Susan reads the story, she begins to think back to her relationship with Edward and how their marriage fell apart.
If anything, Tom Ford knows how to grab an audience’s attention. The film opens with an opening credits sequence that feature naked, obese women happily dancing – which turns out to be part of Susan’s new exhibit. It may be shocking to audiences, but it’s clear that Susan’s grown numb to the spectacle. As the film unfolds, we learn that Susan is an artist herself, but when she declined to pursue her creative impulses, she decided to run a gallery instead. She’s sought meaning for her life in art, but without actually engaging herself – something that Edward’s book forces her to reexamine.
Edward, unlike Susan, has no trouble channeling himself into his art. Through the story of Tony, importantly captured in Susan’s mind as looking like Edward, we see just how crushing the fallout of their marriage has left Edward. Edward’s manuscript is raw and dark, with a penchant for violence. As Susan reads, it’s clear that she begins to understand exactly how much she hurt Edward, and she begins to question how much she may actually be like her own mother (Laura Linney), who she despises.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the clear fiction of Tony’s storyline would carry less weight than Susan’s, which ostensibly is “real.” Ford, though, does a tremendous job making Edward’s writing seem as real as Susan’s world. The parallels between the characters become more clear over time, too. Ford shows tremendous sympathy for his characters, but he also holds them responsible for the decisions they’ve made.
Visually, Ford’s work is as striking as it was with A Single Man. It’s not surprising, but certainly welcome, that the “real-life” scenes with Susan are stunningly gorgeous, but Ford also proves more than capable of capturing the more rough-hewn elements of Tony and his world. And while both of these storylines are visually distinct, they work well together.
It helps, of course, that Ford has assembled a tremendous cast. Adams balances her two storylines – as the detached gallery owner, and as the hopeful grad student who falls for Edward – with some of her best work, which is saying something at a time where another film is also showing Adams on top of her game. Gyllenhaal has less distinctive differences between Edward and Tony, but he’s brilliant in both parts as his optimism turns decidedly darker. Shannon adds his unique talent to the film as well, showing an indifference that laces his scenes with a (very) dark humor. And Taylor-Johnson, who’s often proven solid but unremarkable in his films, shows just how talented he is in a role that goes against everything he’s played before.
Not every film is for everybody, and Nocturnal Animals may prove to be divisive. But for me, this film has managed to stay with me in ways I didn’t expect. It’s chilling and thought-provoking, and creates a complex range of emotional responses that gave me pause. It’s a strong effort from Tom Ford, and among the best films of the year.