Nocturnal Animals is the second feature length film from acclaimed fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford, whose foray into filmmaking has proven to be an incredulous stroke of genius as he continues to dazzle audiences with gripping stories and mesmerizing characters. As with A Single Man, Tom Ford demonstrates an enchanting ability to tell a story with imagination, flair and of course, style. Nocturnal Animals is no different and the strangely structured narrative adds to the sense of unease instilled in you for the film’s duration. Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Aaron Taylor Johnson and Michael Shannon shine so brightly in the film it’s almost unfair, their unhinged performances take you on a journey, through a story so sickening and twisted that you might think it was true.
Tom Ford has spent most of his career until now as a fashion designer and knows the power of provocation. The opening credit sequence is a montage of naked, obese women dancing in slow motion with glitter falling all around them, as the sequence goes on it is given some context as a video art piece at the gallery opening of our protagonist Susan Morrow (Adams). The montage holds a lot of meaning for Ford, who came under fire at the Toronto Film Festival where it premiered and was met with some unimpressed critics. Ford spoke about how he used the scene to make a comment on American politics, at the time of the film’s release, the Presidential Election was fast looming. He used the women to represent the tired, aging and gluttonous nature of the country and he forces you to look at that in slow motion for three minutes. While also provoking the viewer to make an opinion about these women from the off, he also manages to draw the audience into the film, there is something incredibly mesmerizing about these women. While they embody the very opposite of what society considers to be desirable, they are so free and willing to throw themselves and their imperfections at you. Vulnerable and powerful.
So you’ve made it through the opening credits and don’t expect this ride to get any easier. Ford is teasing you in.
Susan Morrow is living an enviable life. She is an art gallery owner living in Los Angeles in an amazing house with a very handsome husband but she is melancholy. She is increasingly disinterested in her life, her husband is always away, she is very alone and she has lost a certain vivacity that she once had in her youth.
During one such period, she receives a manuscript in the post for a book written by her first husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal) who she has not been in contact with for several years. The book is called “Nocturnal Animals” and is about a family who while on the road are harassed by a group of young men who very quickly turn their vacation into a father’s worst nightmare. While reading, Susan is forced to face some demons in her closet and the question as to why Edward has sent this to her starts to become much clearer. Or so she thinks.
While Amy Adams doesn’t actually do much in this film apart from drape herself over her bed, or lie in a deep bubble bath or pour herself over a million dollar couch wearing luxury silks and over sized reading glasses all the while topping up her glass of cabernet sauvignon, she does it very well. As to be expected of a woman of her stature in the industry. She is haunted by the events that are occurring in this book and her time in limbo while reading it is free from the constraints of time in the normal world. As we are taken from the real world story into the world the story is taking place in, the lines become more and more blurred as you start to question what is real and what is not. It is unclear how long she spends reading the book, we are just transported into her head to watch her imagination unfold the words on the pages. This is where the genius of this film lies.
The majority of the film is the dramatization of the book Susan is reading, however, we are unclear as to where this story has come from. We know from flashbacks already that Susan’s ex-husband, Edward is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, however, in her imagining of the book Edward is the father of the family, Tony Hastings. Tony’s wife Laura (Isla Fisher) has similar physical attributes to Susan and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber) is a very attractive teenager. It’s interesting that she is almost imagining Edward and herself in the lead roles but instead of putting herself in there, she has chosen someone who looks a bit like her, allowing herself some distance. This all adds to the suspicion that the events that are unfolding mirror events in Susan’s own life and perhaps the reason why her marriage to Edward broke up. So the story goes that the lovely Hastings family are on a road trip on a deserted road in the middle of the night. Another car comes along and starts playing with them, driving directly beside them, slowly in front of them and antagonizing them. Inside the car are a group of bedraggled, rugged looking men fronted by Ray (Taylor-Johnson) who’s intimidating behavior forces Tony to take drastic action against the men which unfortunately backfires and Ray and his gang abduct Laura and India. Distraught Tony seeks help from local law enforcement Bobby Andes (Shannon) who helps Tony to find his family. Andes, who is dying from lung cancer throws away the rulebook when learning about Tony’s situation and agrees to do what it takes to get his family back. Despite knowing that we are watching Susan’s imagining of this story it doesn’t make it any less terrifying. The fate of this family and events that lead to the stories heart stopping final moments is incredibly intense and you almost forget that this is part of a bigger story, you almost don’t want to go back to Susan lounging around in her LA mansion, you become so involved and so invested in these characters that returning to the real world is banal. It becomes very meta in that respect. However, when we do return to Susan at the end of the story we still have her story to finish off telling which results in a very ambiguous ending.
As I said at the beginning, the shining light of this film is not only its unconventional way of telling a story and making a point (because I think Tom Ford is very clearly making a point in this film) it is also in the performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The latter who received the Golden Globe for his performance as Ray but was denied even a nomination from the Academy. Michael Shannon, who did get nominated for an Academy Award is outstanding as the deaths-door cop who wants revenge and justice and Jake Gyllenhaal’s descent from handsome father to deranged, vengeful maniac makes the two of them a very compelling pair. Put them up against the dastardly Ray, who is a repellent and evil man, and you have a pyramid of brilliance that can only spawn magnificent execution of a well-written story.
If you’re still not convinced, take a look at the trailer!
Nocturnal Animals is premiering on HBO on Saturday, August 19th at 8pm ET.