Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is the kind of film that wriggles its way into your soul. Equal parts bizarre, thrilling, and richly cinematic, it seems meticulously constructed to rattle every audience member in different ways. It is equal parts avant grade art film, violent pulp fiction, and actor’s showcase. In a year in which unoriginality has practically suffocated movie theaters, this film isn’t just a breath of fresh air, it’s a shot from an inhaler. All of this may just sound like critic talk, buzzwords, if you will. However, this isn’t just a movie for people to throw those words at only for it to fade if obscurity. This is something that could join the ranks of initially under-the-radar psychological thriller classics like Fight Club or Memento. It certainly has in my book.
The story centers on art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). She’s feeling a bit down as of late, as her latest exhibits aren’t exactly striking her fancy, while her marriage to her distant husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) falls apart by the second. Just as things seem hopeless, she receives a manuscript for a novel dedicated to her called Nocturnal Animals written by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). She starts to read, and the stories of both the novel and her relationship with Edward both unfold. The novel’s plot deals with Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal), a father who finds himself engulfed in a sea of sorrow and revenge after a gang of delinquents, lead by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) murders his wife and daughter.
The way that Tom Ford, who both wrote and directed this film, stages this narrative is nothing short of brilliant. While the story within the novel would be compelling enough as its own movie, seeing it act as a window into its author’s mind makes it all the more layered. The film reveals itself as an analysis of the kind of people who are driven to write crime fiction, and what darkness lies beneath the surface. We don’t get to see a ton of Edward and Susan’s relationship, but we see just enough to provide a clear picture into the man Edward became when he wrote this novel. Ford’s screenplay is also full of crackling dialogue that is perfectly measured for the separate tones of the parallel storylines.
This is a film so chock full of fantastic performances that giving each of them their full due could take up an entire review. Following up her brilliant work in Arrival with another award-worthy turn, Adams does so very much with what is ultimately a very minimalist role. As Susan pieces together the inspiration for the novel’s story, the price of her actions slowly starts to set in. Conveying so much often with simple facial expressions, Adams anchors all of the insanity in something very human. However, it is Gyllenhaal who runs away with this film in his duel roles. He gets so very much to play with here. The optimistic writer who begins to fall into cynicism through his relationship with Susan, and the grieving father who slowly loses his soul as he seeks revenge. Gyllenhaal nails both sides, with some sequences of pure emotional intensity that rank among his best work. He’s been courting an Oscar nomination with something of a career comeback for a couple of years now, but this could very well be the role that finally gets him the gold.
Meanwhile, the supporting cast is just as strong, particularly in the segments of the film inside the novel. Michael Shannon is perfectly cast as a detective who comes to help Edward with his case and eventually slides way too deep into it. He’s cold and calculating, but there’s a great vulnerability to him. Meanwhile, Aaron Taylor-Johnson stuns as the charismatic but brutal sociopath in question. It is as if all of the screen presence and charisma he’s been lacking in his Godzilla and Kick-Ass turns had been accumulating to burst out into this one performance. He’s both charming, and terrifying, often at the same time. It’s a turn that’s going to open a great deal of possibilities for him in the future.
Ford’s background as a fashion designer is extremely evident in his direction. Every shot in this film is meticulously crafted and beautifully captured by Seamus McGarvey. He paces the novel segments with the urgency and emotion of a David Fincher or Alfred Hitchcock movie. There are extended sequences of breathless suspense, fueled almost entirely by dialogue, that feel play-like in their execution. Meanwhile, some of Susan’s more reflective moments feel ripped out of a Nicolas Winding Refn film, with the aesthetics taking center stage in the storytelling. However, this movie never comes across as an imitation of those filmmakers. It’s clearly has a great deal of influences, but it is very much an animal onto itself.
In fact, the only false note this movie hits comes at the very end. The film hits a stirring but somewhat ambiguous crescendo, cuts to black, and then keeps going for another ten minutes. The point it does cut off at isn’t bad per say, but it lacks the emotional impact of the moment before. However, since the rest of the film is paced so well, this slight flub at the end is very easy to forgive.
Nocturnal Animals isn’t going to be for everybody. It’s disturbing, somewhat off center, and contains some sequences that might be a little polarizing. However, none of the film’s strange elements come from a place of pretentiousness. This isn’t a string of empty images used to stroke a filmmaker’s ego. Every piece of this fits together perfectly. Tom Ford has asserted himself as a master storyteller here, somebody who could in time join the ranks of some of the all-time greats. Like a truly riveting novel, this masterpiece is impossible to turn away from, and once it’s over, you’ll be itching to pick it up again.