Most folks will hate Nocturnal Animals, or find some part of it repulsive. From its audacious opening credit sequence through its final shot, director Tom Ford does not compromise his lively, sinister imagination. Parts of the film are downright agonizing, and the only reprieve is spiteful, wry comedy. Ford is mostly known as a fashion designer; this is his second film, after the criminally forgotten A Single Man. Once again, he delves into the elegant, wealthy milieu of LA’s art scene, except Nocturnal Animals also indulges in a exploitation, B-grade trash cinema – in the best possible way. There is a point to his madness, even a sense of catharsis, but this thriller’s point of view is not exactly worth celebrating.
Ford begins with shocking, transgressive imagery, and it’s all the more unsettling because he presents it without context. After the credits wrap, we learn that the imagery is part of a modern art gallery. Susan (Amy Adams) owns the gallery, and she is unhappy at her latest opening. She hates the work, for one thing, and her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) is nowhere to be found. Back at home, Susan receives an unusual package: a final draft of a novel called “Nocturnal Animals.” The attached note explains its author is Edward, her first husband, and that she inspired him to write it (he even dedicates the book to her). Susan reads the book over the weekend, and Ford divides the film between her life and depicting the story-within-a-story.
“Nocturnal Animals” is about Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), a soft-spoken man who takes his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) on a drive through West Texas. They’re forced off the road by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his creepy friends. There is a protracted sequence where Ray thoroughly dismantles any sense of hope or civilization, leaving Tony with fear and impotent rage. Tony survives the night, but wife and daughter do not: with the help of local lawman Bobby (Michael Shannon), Tony stumbles upon their nude corpses. The rest of “Nocturnal Animals” is a plunge into a story of passion and revenge, where Tony and Bobby compromise their values in their pursuit of the killers.
At first, Susan and Tony’s stories are independent. Susan reads in fits and starts – she closes the book during the disturbing bits – so Tony’s story is filtered through her own imagination. We start to learn more about Susan and Edward, also played by Gyllenhaal. They married young, and the relationship ended on a note of desperation and cruelty. This is where Ford, working from a novel by Austin Wright, starts to reveal his hand. The book “Nocturnal Animals” is an exaggerated, pained metaphor for Edward’s own inadequacies, and Susan responds with a mix of empathy and shock. By burrowing into her ex’s imagination, he starts to infect her everyday life. She misses her real life husband and daughter, both of whom ignore her, and her nightmares seep into her waking life.
Ford films the Susan scenes with clinical detachment, as if her life is a grim satire of Hollywood excess. The Texas scenes, on the other hand, are shot like an exaggerated melodrama, sort of like what might happen if Wes Craven made a soap opera. The purpose of exaggeration is what interests Ford. The characters in “Nocturnal Animals” are not constrained by realism or a social contract, so their world is more liberated than Susan’s, who modulates her voice so it never betrays any emotion. In a flashback sequence, Edward explains to Susan that, “writers always write about themselves,” so the motivation behind such a lively, disturbing thriller is what Ford intends to solve.
The film’s premise does not mean that the performances feel inauthentic. In fact, part of Nocturnal Animal‘s appeal is that most actors deal with such artificiality on a regular basis. Adams starts out reserved, then unspools with gestures that are equal parts measured and evocative. Gyllenhaal plays the familiar type – the weak everyman who finds primal courage – and adds raw anger beneath his anguish. The other actors, especially Taylor-Johnson and Shannon, have much more fun with the secondary roles. Shannon is quietly becoming the best character actor of his generation, and here he plays a cop with a sardonic outlook on fate. And even though they’re only ten years apart, Laura Linney pops up at Susan’s brittle, domineering mother. Ford’s casting decisions are brilliant, if a little beguiling, since no one is quite the right age for the role they play. I think that’s deliberate, a way for us to get inside Susan’s imagination. She sees Edward for the Tony character in a way that no one else would.
With its nesting doll narrative structure, Nocturnal Animals is strikingly similar to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Both films have a story within a story, commenting on each other as the screenplay jumps through time. Anderson’s film may be denser, with four distinct levels, yet both he and Ford are unique stylists who use formal constraints to arrive at a larger, challenging emotional truth. Ford’s intuitive sense of editing and camera placement serve his major themes, which are disquieting and recognizably human. Nocturnal Animals is not pleasant, and it does not have the same resolution we might expect from a horror film. The film does have a resolution, eventually, and it makes a challenging, well-taken point about why we sometimes need culture. Creativity and writing can be necessary to exorcise our demons.