Synopsis: An art gallery owner is haunted by her ex-husband’s novel, a violent revenge thriller that strikes a nerve. (Source)
Nocturnal Animals is both the most romantic and cruel film of the year. Unabashedly twisted and with a dense atmosphere of unease, Tom Ford’s sophomore effort is masterfully crafted from the ground up – it’s the cure to the common romance story, most of which are safe, sterilized and meaningless. Taking us deep within a world of wealthy socialites, self-absorbed artists and hardened criminals, this is Ford’s neo-noir, a visually striking tale of jilted lovers and revenge. All the shock and perversion has a point, though, exploring identity and catharsis through art, and the way we can unwittingly become the people we’ve spent our entire lives trying to avoid. Anchored by impeccable performances from Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and more, the film grips us from start to finish, keeping us at the end of our seats for the duration of its wild, sordid ride.
In the present, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a respected art gallery owner who navigates esteemed social circles – she seemingly has it all, including a dashing husband and mountaintop mansion. In reality, this elite lifestyle has left her empty and broken, secretly critical of her success and trapped within a loveless marriage. After two decades of silence, Susan’s ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), sends her the manuscript to his latest novel, Nocturnal Animals. The story is dedicated to Susan and comes with a note – he’ll be in town soon, and would love to reconnect if she’s open to it. Alone for the weekend, she cracks open Edward’s book to find a flood of violence and tragedy. As she gets deeper into the story, it rekindles unsettled emotions and touches upon a dark secret which she’s been hiding all these years.
Adapting a story from author Austin Wright, Ford’s film is one rich with possibilities and a layered sensory experience that oozes with style and poignancy. The film masquerades as a romantic revenge thriller, but ends up being about the struggle between idealism and cynicism, as well as how art and stories are a powerful way of exorcising demons. Ford’s execution is haunting and sexy, taking a non-linear approach that presents his plot like a labyrinthian jigsaw puzzle. At the center is a story within a story, with the dramatization of Edward’s book bringing to life Susan’s infidelities through a grisly crime drama. Connecting the film’s fiction with reality is a rush of alliterative visual poetry, blending past and present as feelings of regret and retribution collide to create a kaleidoscope of pain and suffering. It all dovetails into the idea of how empty materialism and fame can be without the right relationships to keep us grounded, even finding ways to mix in a bit of perverse humor to spice things up when we least expect.
Naturally, the performances within are as dense and unpredictable as the film itself. Amy Adams’ Susan is our guide through the film’s shifting realities, transforming both as we get to know her, and as she is moved by Edward’s violent story. Adams evokes a lot without having to say anything, creating a character who is different depending on who is around her. Still, it isn’t hard to follow her emotional journey, with Adams finding clarity through each twist. Jake Gyllenhaal has a fun role, mostly revealing Edward through flashbacks, spending most of the film as the mental projection of Edward’s fictional character, Tony, who is struck with tragedy and harboring a thirst for vengeance. Despite connecting between different truths, the Adams and Gyllenhaal have a bond that transcends their narrative disconnect, weighing over each other in sobering ways. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon play shady characters from Edward’s story, each bringing textural morality into play in ways that contrast nicely.
Saying anything more about the film wouldn’t be right – it should be seen knowing as little as possible. Ultimately, Ford’s latest is fun and cheeky but also heavy and hypnotic. There’s an irreverence to it that doesn’t betray its depth, and yet Ford has masterfully constructed an experience built around opposing tones and ideas. No matter who you look at it, Nocturnal Animals is expertly crafted, executed and performed – it’s an elegant tapestry of how fiction mirrors truth, celebrating narrative as an art form and how it shapes both the artist and those that are touched by it.