Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man, was an emotionally engrossing story told with visual flourish and a series of strong, effecting performances. Something similar could be said about his follow-up, Nocturnal Animals. While his debut was a beautiful film, this one is aesthetically beautiful while surrounding a pulpy, trashy narrative. Your mileage for vary for the grotesquery and emotional evisceration on display, but I think of this as a minor trashterpiece. Maybe even a major one if I revisit in a few years.
There’s a few timelines going on here, two happening in reality, and the third a meta-narrative of one character’s book-within-the-film. There’s the present time, where Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is trapped in a crumbling marriage (to Armie Hammer), and deeply unsatisfied with her career and life in general. Then there are the flashbacks to Susan’s former relationship and eventual divorce from an idealist writer (Jake Gyllenhaal). Finally, there’s the novel that Gyllenhaal has written and sent to Adams. This last thread is the ugliest one, but also the most crucial to tying all of the disparate threads together.
His novel, from where the film derives its title, is part revenge screed against Susan for cheating on him, the divorce, and a cathartic expulsion of his emotional uncertainty and anger in the wake of those events. There’s no forgiveness to be found here, but there’s plenty of bloodletting, violence, and trauma. Susan’s eventual realization of which man truly loved her and the visceral slap in the face she receives leave the audience with no true feeling of closure. There’s just injured pride and more emotional violence committed against these characters. Of course, Susan’s choice of surface luxury in lieu of emotional substance and stability is a tragedy of her own making.
As Susan continues reading the proof of the novel, we see the real-life inspirations for the exaggerated tragedies and blood-soaked masculine revenge games. These links are frequently clumsy as a passive-aggressive fight between lovers can lead to an assault. Or a moment where he discovers her cheating with her future husband transforms into the mutual deaths of two characters. Tom Ford’s directorial gusto is noble for the devotion he brings towards marrying melodrama and pulp together, and his eye cannot be faulted. He’s still learning the ropes as a director, but only two films in as disparate and wild as these two and I think it’s safe to say that I’m a fan and look forward to his next project.
And if Ford can keep attracting talent as high as these two films, then his future projects should really be an immediate ping on your radar. Not only do we get Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal (in a double-role of sorts), Armie Hammer, but Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough (so good as an artificial member of the artistic glitterati), Jena Malone, Michael Sheen, and Isla Fisher show up for small roles. But there’s two performances that really standout here. Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a mangy, flea-bitten redneck who terrorizes the characters within the novel’s structure, and Michael Shannon as the Texas lawman who chases after him. Shannon, one of great cinematic eccentrics, gives enough manic, wild performance that’s as engrossing as it is individualistic. Look at the uber-macho way he deals with a coughing fit and his revelation of a cancer diagnosis. No wonder Shannon walked off with this film’s lone Oscar nomination.
There’s a lot going on in Nocturnal Animals, perhaps too much, but goddamn if I wasn’t totally sold on this weird-fest. Between the immaculate images, the gloriously oddball performances, the trifecta of timelines vying for attention, it all adds up to something singular and unique. Even when it falters (is some of this supposed be as broadly comic as it plays?), Nocturnal Animals is still a fascinating experience.