When you love someone you can’t just throw it away.
Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is simultaneously one of the most beautiful and most unsettling films of 2016. It brazenly announces this deliberate disconnect from the opening frame, offering a credits sequence which fuses images of obese, scarred, naked, expressionless women cavorting around with the alluring sound of Abel Korzeniowski’s lush, gorgeous original score. It’s a film that will dazzle you with its stunning production design, and then startle you with its savage acts of human cruelty. Meanwhile, it cleverly alternates between two narratives that seem vastly different until they become inseparable.
Our story begins with Susan Morrow (Amy Adams, Arrival), an art gallery owner who receives an advance copy of a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler). The novel is titled Nocturnal Animals (a term Edward used to use to describe the insomnia-plagued Susan), and it’s dedicated to Susan. This is a surprise, to say the least: Susan and Edward haven’t spoken in many years (we don’t know how their marriage ended, but we know it ended on bad terms), and the last time she tried to call him he hung up on her. Now, he seems to be ready for reconciliation, and agrees to meet with her to talk about the book after she’s finished reading it.
Meanwhile, the film presents us with dramatized passages from the novel. In the fictional story, a man named Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher, The Lookout) and his daughter India (Ellie Bamber, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) run into trouble while driving through West Texas. They’re accosted by a group of young hooligans, and when the dust has settled Tony has been separated from his family. The next day, he begins working alongside local police detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter) in an effort to find out what happened to his wife and daughter.
It’s a testament to the skill of Ford’s filmmaking that the “fictional” story – which is regularly interrupted by brief scenes of Susan reading the story (or taking a break from reading the story) – manages to generate such tension. It’s a nasty, gripping thriller on its own terms, but it’s the tale’s unknown connection to reality that really gets under our skin: what motivated Edward to write this savage tale, and why has he dedicated it to Susan? There’s a real sense of dread that accompanies the film’s journey to that truth, as each half of the film begins to bleed into the other and provide revealing, horrifying context.
While Ford’s adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man was a film that offered a palpable feeling of melancholy and longing, this one – based on Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan – has an almost Kubrickian chilliness. I don’t think Ford hates his characters, but they frequently hate each other: Susan speaks derisively of her “sexist, racist, Republican” mother (a fine cameo from Laura Linney, The Truman Show), Edward has long despised Susan, Susan’s current husband Hutton (Armie Hammer, The Lone Ranger) is a serial philanderer who seems to have no interest in his wife, Bobby has a grudge against the rest of the department, Tony hates the young criminals he’s trying to find… on and on it goes. Is there any hope of healing and reconciliation? It’s possible that Edward’s book is an attempt to create something along those lines. It’s also possible that he’s creating something else.
The ensemble is strong across the board. Adams has a lot of difficult emotional subtext to convey, and she handles all of it persuasively and honestly. She also does a nice job of outlining the differences between the current version of her character and the version we see in flashbacks (who tends to bite her tongue less frequently). Gyllenhaal’s dual performance is an intriguing effort from an increasingly chameleonic actor: Edward and Tony both get hurt, but their reactions are… very different. Michael Shannon’s commanding work as the no-nonsense Texas lawman is terrific: a man who decisively steps across legal lines and then waits patiently to see how far Tony will follow him. The surprise of the cast is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, delivering a nasty performance that’s far more immediately compelling than anything else I’ve seen from him.
In addition to being a dark, polished slice of neo-noir, the film offers a thought-provoking examination of the creative process. It takes a look at the way emotional trauma and life experience works itself into the art we create. The notion of art-as-personal-therapy has been discussed frequently, but what’s under the microscope here is a particularly dark variation on that idea. Art has the power to generate empathy and understanding, but it also has the power to wound and dehumanize. The person absorbing the art is given as much attention as the artist: it’s also a movie about the way art we’re in the process of absorbing – a novel, a TV show, etc. – can affect little things in our daily routine and place a filter on the way we see the world. Like most good directors, Ford knows how to use the assorted tools of his medium to manipulate his audience. Here, he frequently reminds us of how easily those tools can be weaponized.
Nocturnal Animals (Blu-ray) serves up a tremendous 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. Detail is superb throughout: you can see every bit of dirt on those lonely Texas roads and every strand of Amy Adams’ hair. Black levels are deep and inky, depth is impressive throughout and Ford’s imagery just pops off the screen. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is similarly superb, giving the remarkable score a lush, full mix and offering balanced, immersive sound design. Supplements are thin: a DVD copy, a digital copy and a making-of featurette.
Nocturnal Animals is ice-cold, but mostly because it knows revenge is best served that way. Highly recommended.