Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is really two movies in one, but only one of those movies is worth your time. If it weren’t for the fashion icon turned filmmaker’s distinct visual aesthetic I might say the film is something you should put off until you stumble upon it during some late night television binge, but considering its unique high society campiness an admittedly devilish part of me feels it does warrant big screen viewing. It’s the kind of film the opens with a two-minute montage of fully nude obese women dancing in circles against a red curtain, each twirling sparklers, for no real reason other than to ensure everyone starts off their viewing experience expecting the unexpected. It won’t be for everyone, but it just might be the ride of your life.
In the film, which is inspired by the 1993 novel Tony And Susan from Austin Wright, Nocturnal Animals is the title of a soon-to-be-released novel by Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). The unseen writer mails a copy of the book to his ex-wife, Susan Marrow (Amy Adams), at the beginning of the film. Knowing the title is a reference to her, Susan reads the story while reflecting on the events that led to her divorce from Edward nearly 20 years ago.
This is the first story of Nocturnal Animals, and it can be summarized as an elaborate series of sequences where Amy Adams—typically dressed to the nines and looking permanently on the verge of a complete emotional breakdown—is seen reading a book. That’s it. Without the book itself and the story it contains, which is the meat of the film, the entirety of this feature would be a beautifully shot montage that looked more like a PSA to promote reading amongst the 1% than an actual movie. Susan’s life is a disaster with or without the book, but the film cares so little about developing her life beyond the time spent consuming the illusive Edward’s book that you have no reason to care for her existence.
Edward’s novel is a completely different experience that could easily stand on its own as a flawed, but ultimately rewarding and gritty experience if it had just a bit more meat on its revenge-riddled bones. The story follows Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), a mild-mannered family man taking his wife (Isla Fischer) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) on a road trip through Texas. During a late night drive on an empty stretch of road, the family encounters a trio of bad guys led by Kick-Ass star Aaron Taylor-Johnson who ultimately kidnap Tony’s family and leave him to die. Tony survives the incident, and with a little help from a wayward member of law enforcement (Michael Shannon) he sets out to bring the men to justice.
The run-in between the Hastings family and the men who ultimately propel the story forward is the highlight of Ford’s film. Set in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night, Ford creates an atmosphere of sustained tension that slowly boils over into an outright nightmare that cuts deep into the heart of anyone with family. It’s as heavy-handed a metaphor for separation as could be brought to screen, but because the film doubts we the viewing audience will comprehend this it doubles down with constant returns to Adams and the lazy framing device that is her purpose in the film. It’s then emphasized further through flashbacks to her relationship with Edward, which includes visual references to things seen in the book.
Ford’s apparent lack of faith in the viewer’s ability to comprehend his not-as-deep-as-he-thinks-it-is thriller aside, there is a lot of great stuff to be found in Nocturnal Animals. Gyllenhaal is the main attraction, and his ability to channel a smorgasbord of emotions without coming across as erratic never ceases to amaze. Shannon is equally great, bringing his signature gravitas to every moment without once outright chewing the scenery. His restraint is impeccable, and it’s only matched by the performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Though his character’s motivations are ultimately muddy, his conviction turns every crooked grin into a sinister snarl that is likely to make you feel more than a little unsettled.
Nocturnal Animals is a late night drive-in movie for people who have elaborate home theaters and cabinets stocked with overpriced liquor they never drink. It’s the kind of movie that would almost pass for a violent re-imagining of a forgotten low budget thriller from the 1970s if it wasn’t so clearly and meticulously designed from top to bottom with the kind of fashion and attitude that only exist in dime store romance novels that sit on the shelf at your divorced aunt’s house. It’s a rape-revenge thriller by way of a runway show, and as far as those kinds of things go it isn’t half bad.