In 2009, Austin, Texas native and noted fashion designer Tom Ford made his feature film debut with A Single Man. A delirious and stunningly photographed vision quest through loss and grief, A Single Man defined Ford as a filmmaker whose haute couture background greatly influenced his aesthetic and in turn his very process. Earning a Best Actor nomination for Colin Firth, A Single Man also established Ford as an actor’s director and helped in turn attract the likes of two of Hollywood’s finest, Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams, for his latest feature, Nocturnal Animals.
An adaptation of Austin Wright’s 1993 novel “Tony and Susan”, Nocturnal Animals hues closely to the deceptively twisted plotting of Wright’s work. A film within a film, Nocturnal Animals is Russian Nesting Doll in design and Jack in the Box by nature. That is, you never know what nasty surprise will erupt next.
Adams is Susan Morrow, the hard, troubled exterior of the film. Adams is composed to the point of being statuesque. Done up in top of the line designer wears and tombed within a lavish modern castle – an abode that doubles as a tomb – Susan languishes. Her aura Botoxed to vacancy, she is a shell, a beautiful one, but a shell nonetheless. Exactly the money-grubbing monster her mother (an offensively debutante Laura Linney) always promised she would be.
We meet Susan at her gallery opening. Denuded obese women dance with Fourth of July attire – sparklers, red, white and blue whistles, whirling batons – blare on lofty screens overhead. Her art is suggestive, not so much a critique of body-shaming as an extension of it. Her husband Hutton (an ice cold Armie Hammer) does not show. When a manuscript from her ex-lover (Gyllenhaal) arrives that very night, Susan becomes instantly engrossed – her vanity and the fact the novel is dedicated to her urging the infatuation onward – and the film pivots from the sleek hard corners of stomach-churning LA elitism to the dusty backroads of East Texas and a whole different level of stomach-churning. Throughout both threads, night prevails. Nocturnal animals lie in wait.
In the novel, Gyllenhaal doubles as Tony Hastings, a man inexplicably traveling by moonlight with his wife and daughter. Their destination and motive is cloudy but soon none of that matters when a trio of redneck ruffians force them from the road. As the ringleader of the delinquent triptych, Aaron Taylor-Johnson has never been better. He taps into a carnal state, shaping a character whose unpredictable acts are as arresting as they are utterly terrifying. His usual soft blue eyes absolutely glow danger.
Ford’ adaptation of Wright’s novel encounters the occasional pacing hiccup pairing the more slow moving elements of Adams’ story to the much more anxiety-wracked horrors of Gyllenhaal’s but as he begins to wind their past history together, the picture becomes clearer. The nonlinear orchestration is commendable up until the end. Then it’s almost perfect. It helps too that we see firsthand the “clarity” that the novel inflicts upon Susan. And how that clarity becomes a tormenting force in her life. The acknowledgement of being a terrible person is a continuous thread – one explored by all characters but none so much as Susan – and one that’s as dark as any theme in the film.
The three story lines – Susan’s present day, the fictional world of the novel, and Susan and Edward’s past – coalesce poignantly. Each gives meaning to the other, injecting context and in turn making each plot thread richer and more substantial. They ebb into and out of each other, folding and stacking atop one another to add complexity and depth to each disparate thread. The experience, I can only imagine, would become even more full-bodied upon repeat examinations.
Though Adams is expectantly strong in the role it is Gyllenhaal’s show to steal. The paralyzing dread and utter anguish he’s asked to perform is exhausting to behold. For years, Gyllenhaal has been firing on all cylinders and this is no exception. When Michael Shannon arrives on the scene (whatever genius put him in a cowboy hat deserves a fat Christmas bonus) and is able to one-up Gyllenhaal speaks to the exceptional level of acting one can expect throughout Nocturnal Animals. Seriously someone should just hand Shannon an Academy Award nomination for his work here. He’s that good and more.
CONCLUSION: Not for the faint of heart, Tom Ford’s ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a drearily pitch-black and distinctly American psychosexual thriller that painfully explores the worst sides of humanity – from the high castles of society’s haughty affluent to the repugnant pond scum shucked from its jail cells.