Directed by Tom Ford
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon
Style and substance should go hand in hand in the world of film, but isn't always so. Sometimes, artistry gives way to a plethora of style, but not enough content to back it up. Sometimes, spectacle takes over without much wisdom or depth. With his second film, Nocturnal Animals, following the critical success A Single Man, director Tom Ford pieces together a wild romantic thriller showcasing his knack for stunning visuals and twisted storytelling.
Amy Adams gives her second best performance of the year as Susan Morrow (the first being her work in Arrival), an upper-crust art gallery owner haunted by her past while being celebrated as a success. On the weekend of her latest gallery opening, featuring guffawing images of overweight, nude models gallivanting around, her earned critical praise is overshadowed by a mysterious delivery of a manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). A novelist, his written project, titled Nocturnal Animals, becomes a parallel between Morrow's internal guilt about her past and her ex-husband's search for redemption.
Adams' arc of the story is subtle and quietly haunting, acting as the link between the chapters of the true meat of the film: the novel. Set in the emptiness of west Texas, somewhere on the way to Marfa, the novel tells the story of a family's weekend vacation being riddled with terror as they are overcome and taken prisoner by desert country boys out to gain respect from the well-to-do family.
It becomes clear early on that the family in the story is a mirror of Morrow's past. Nocturnal Animals is rich with layers of genius filmmaking choices, the greatest of which is the casting of Isla Fisher as the counterpart to Adams' Morrow. In the cinematic view of the novel, Morrow's image of the husband and the teenage daughter are those of her real ex-husband and her teenage daughter. The difference in her own picturing of the wife/mother as a similar, but different, female plays into the idea of our own perceptions of ourselves.
The story within the story is the film's strong point, offering Gyllenhaal some of his best work since Nightcrawler as the real ex-husband, Edward Sheffield, and the novelization's Tony Hastings. And, Michael Shannon gives an Oscar-worthy supporting turn as the novel's gritty sheriff determined to help Hastings find who took his wife and daughter.
The ups and down of the film's structure allow for a total immersion of both stories, giving Ford plenty of room to quietly reveal some well-earned twists along the way. As the parallels between fiction and reality grow closer and closer, Susan's internal pain and guilt come to a head, painting an image of one's past mistakes impacting one's future. It's a proverbial slap in the face that equally elicits the satisfaction of revenge and the sadness of emotional failure. Nocturnal Animals is an unequivocal study of self-preservation at the sake of everyone around you. Just when you think you've made room for forgiveness, karma has a funny way of reminding you of how much of a mess you really are.
It's hard to completely cover every angle of Nocturnal Animals, since the delight of the film is beyond just its beautiful cinematography and stellar score. In essence, Ford has pieced together a beautiful mess of life's greatest strengths and weaknesses. Resilience in the face of terror is heartening. Resilience in the face of self-destruction is painful. Nocturnal Animals simmers in the delight of love lost and revenge found. Ford's masterpiece falls somewhere between Hell or High Water and The Neon Demon. It's delicious, gorgeous, and unpredictable.
Runtime: 116 minutes