Nocturnal Animals is a Menagerie of Dark Delights


After a seven year absence director Tom Ford returns with Nocturnal Animals, a dark and twisted tale of love, revenge and murder.

Tom Ford transitioned from the world of fashion into directing with his languid 2009 drama A Single Man. The newly minted director’s taken his time returning behind the camera, but the wait was worth it. Adapted from Austin Wright’s novel, Nocturnal Animals is a frantic fever dream of the ways we betray and disappoint ourselves and those we love.

Susan (Amy Adams) is a sophisticated New York gallery owner. When her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her a manuscript for his upcoming book, she enmeshes herself in it. Edward’s tale is a gritty story of murder and vengeance that may be his way of purging his own demons, as well as those within their marriage.

Detailing Nocturnal Animals in a cogent way is a difficult undertaking; partly because of the film’s multi-layered narrative, but the audience feelings that feed off it. Susan’s story follows the familiar beats of “beautiful people living lives of quiet desperation.” As her absent husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) tries to stave off financial ruin, Susan seeks happiness in her own life. Edward’s story is an angry allegory for their relationship, and the film’s divergence into the pages is the fantastic. It simultaneously opens up Susan’s consciousness, examining why her marriage with Edward failed in the first place. As I said, it’s a difficult one to deconstruct.

The film’s opening credits show zaftig women gyrating in the nude as part of an art installation. The intent is to provoke, and gauging audience reaction is interesting. The women aren’t conventionally beautiful, but their confidence is intoxicating, setting up an ironic contrast with the violated, battered bodies of women presented later on.

Ford’s film is built on the pain people inflict on others, intentionally and unintentionally. Though all three narratives are lean pieces of human emotion, Edward’s story is the best. Edward’s facsimile, Tom (also played by Gyllenhaal) is road-tripping through West Texas with his wife and daughter (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber). The family’s soon set upon by a gang of riffraff, led by the deranged Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

With a narrative akin to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Ford proves himself adept at directing a horrific revenge thriller. Gyllenhaal’s Tom is a man with nothing to lose, forced to find his masculinity and reconcile it with his newfound violent tendencies. Michael Shannon plays the man “who looks into things,” Bobby Andes, providing the closest thing that passes for levity. The entire story-within-a-story is thrilling and heart-pounding, with an utterly terrifying performance by Taylor-Johnson that sticks in your brain.

Ford plays with gender through the competing narratives. Tom’s story, the one Edward’s written for himself, is a stab at redeeming his manhood, to avoid being “weak.” Told via Susan’s own flashbacks, Edward’s sensitive romanticism is wonderful, in theory. Laura Linney, in an achingly wonderful sequence, prophetically tells Susan “The things you love about him will one day be the things you come to hate,” and that’s true. Edward is creative, but it comes at the expense of his self-esteem. (Where Tom segues from weak to vengeful, Edward transitions from sensitive to brutal; Gyllenhaal plays both characters beautifully.)

Adams’ Susan desperately wishes to avoid the typical pratfall women face in films: becoming their mother. The cliche of “turning into my mom” gives Ford opportunity to play with what that means regarding security and happiness. This is the second Amy Adams performance in as many months and it’s superior to her work in Arrival.  Susan is so beaten down and conditioned by the world that she falls back on the familiar. Adams glows with youth opposite Gyllenhaal, and holds a fire burning underneath the dull confines of her New York world.

Nocturnal Animals’ technical credentials are worthy of as much praise as Ford’s direction and writing. Costume designer Arianne Phillips’ work is spectacular. You see brisk, formal black, overlayed with splashes of color, symbolize the fire yearning to break out in Susan’s clothes. The small Texas town isn’t the center of high fashion, though perfect conveys the economic status and comfort levels of the characters. Abel Korzeniowski’s score is also a work of art, high melodramatic strings one moment and the simplistic sound of a beating heart the next.

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Nocturnal Animals is one of the year’s best that demands repeat viewings to gather all the emotions. It’s a feast, both for the eyes and the mind. The entire ensemble cast works wonders. Go see it!