Eight years ago, designer Tom Ford segued into the world of filmmaking with the critical darling A Single Man. He meticulously took his time with his crafty follow-up, an adaptation of Austin Wright's novel called Nocturnal Animals. Conjuring up comparisons to the work of Sam Peckinpah, Ford creates a film both shocking and gaudy, pulpy, and deathly authentic that captures the bleak beauty and horrible depravity within us all.
Susan (Amy Adams) seemingly lives the perfect life. Her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her a copy of his finished novel, and while reading the dark and twisted tale of murder and revenge, Susan starts to wonder if her past is being laid bare in the novel's pages.
For only being his second feature, Tom Ford proves himself more than capable of creating a tight and compelling story with a powder keg of emotions at its base. After a memorable opening-credits sequence that tests the mettle of the audience more than anything, Ford dives into a world he knows. Susan is the beautiful owner of an art gallery in an unhappy marriage. Though she's told to enjoy the "absurdity" of her wealth, she's unable to be happy. On the surface, there's little new or unique in the premise. With a character more closed-off and restrained than her role in Arrival, Amy Adams knows how to keep her emotions in check while cheekily allowing the audience into her mind, aided by the camera's adoration of close-ups on her. She showcases the confusion of being a woman, and how, no matter what, they're set up to fail whether they adhere to their own desires or not.
Where Ford truly flexes his directorial muscles is in the novel, the story within the story, written by Susan's ex-husband Edward, a plot device beautifully edited within Susan's own narrative of meeting Edward for the first time. Ford's script moves between both narratives with an eye towards exploring the power of love and betrayal. How can someone "protect" the sanctity of love and romance for themselves without hurting someone else? The multi-layered narrative doesn't allow for a flawless summation of the movie's plot beats, but acts more as an audience experience.
The true "plot" shines through in Edward's novel, where the film gets its title. Playing dual roles, Gyllenhaal plays both the idealistic and romantic Edward, as well as his novel's protagonist Tony, a family man who suffers a horrific tragedy while on a trip through West Texas. Gyllenhaal has the ability to play the dashing matinee idol as well as the tortured, broken victim and he shines here. It's easy to see why someone like Susan would find his sensitivity romantic...at first. Gyllenhaal's puppy-dog expression is endearing until the character presents himself as thin-skinned to Susan's constructive criticisms. The film's meat, and the titled "nocturnal animals," feed off of is the horrors committed on the side of the road against Tony and his family. Ford shows great skill at crafting a horroric tale of revenge on par with the likes of Sam Peckinpah, turning this tale of opulence and art into a grimy recreation of Straw Dogs.
As the fractured Tony, Gyllenhaal eschews the hang-dog expression in favor of a gaunt and withered appearance. As Tony enters onto a course of revenge over the man who wronged him (played by a truly terrifying Aaron Taylor-Johnson) the book acts as a metaphor for Edward and Susan's relationship that the audience must deconstruct. The lawman with nothing to lose (a performance that's garnered Michael Shannon an Academy Award nomination this year), allows Tony the catharsis he's searching for while adhering to the masculine tropes inherent in the Old West. Ford expertly crafts two individual movies that act as symbiotic halves of a whole, with audiences able to devote time to both halves while retaining the overall balance of all the relationships involved.
Ford builds a film intent on showing the pain we inflict on others, either intentionally (like Taylor-Johnson's Ray) or unintentionally (Susan's relationship with Edward). There's also some fascinating examinations of gender throughout. A blistering conversation with her mother (wonderfully played by Laura Linney), sees Susan criticized for her marriage prospects, yet further maligned for not having commonly feminine traits like creativity or optimism. Conversely, Edward is perceived as overly sensitive that comes to a head in the cowardly Tony of his novel, a man interrogated by police about how much of a fight he put up during the incident that destroyed his family. Ford does this to show the complexity of human emotions and how redundent gender expectations truly are.
Despite Ford's beautiful presentation of the film itself, the Blu-ray lacks any of the glamour in its bonus features. The Blu-ray contains the basics of a digital copy as well as the DVD. Outside of that there is a three-part making-of featurette that looks at the film's standard trappings with a look at Tom Ford and the storytelling elements. This is strictly a purchase if you enjoy the film itself.
Nocturnal Animals is a film that defies description. It's a moving and haunting portrait of love, revenge, betrayal and suffering that must be experienced. Tom Ford continues to cement himself as a master filmmaker with an ability to unpack emotions, showing us at our best and worst.