A slow-motion, carnivalesque montage of naked, obese Americana opens Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. This sequence is eventually revealed to be part of an art installation in a gallery owned by protagonist Susan (Amy Adams). Despite its obvious satirical undercurrent, this lurid and fleshy opening ultimately feels irrelevant to what follows, making it arguably the only misstep in what is otherwise something of a modern masterpiece.
I should caution upfront that in addition to the afore-mentioned nudity there are scenes of violence and plenty of bad language. Furthermore, whether you are offended by such elements or not, this is not going to be for everyone. It is actually a very difficult film to define. Part noir thriller, part bleak, cautionary drama, Ford’s adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan has a highly polished, deliberate, calculated sheen. Given that Ford is a fashion guru (and as exhibited in his previous film A Single Man), every single shot is meticulously crafted and designed, to the extent that it initially gives a misleading impression of superficiality, of being all surface and no substance. However, there is in fact plenty of substance.
Susan appears to have it all – an expensive, elite lifestyle with her handsome businessman husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). But there is trouble in paradise. Hutton’s latest deal is going south, and he might be having an affair. Susan begins to recognise that her existence is superficial and, though she doesn’t want to admit it, unhappy. However, when the proof of a soon to be published novel by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives in the post, a-film-within-a-film begins to unfold whilst Susan reads said novel – a violent tale that opens with rednecks running Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife and teenage daughter off a remote Texas highway.
A paper cut Susan gets when opening Edward’s novel clearly indicates to the viewer that this book is going to “draw blood”, as it were. What follows as the film cuts between Susan reading, flashbacks to her relationship with Edward, and the action of the novel, is gripping but also rather depressing. Indeed, whilst my admiration for this film is not in doubt, I can’t quite make up my mind how much I actually liked it. I think another viewing or two is in order to make that determination, but that in itself is a remarkable achievement. Nocturnal Animals is definitely a film that gets under the skin.
One sequence in particular involving the rednecks is almost unbearable in its drawn-out, menacing suspense. Performances are all terrific, and Michael Shannon deserves a special mention in a key supporting role. Other notable acting talent crops up throughout, including Laura Linney, Jena Malone, Andrea Riseborough, Isla Fisher and Elile Bamber. There’s also a brief but noteworthy cameo from Michael Sheen. Abel Korzeniowski’s lush, Herrmann-esque music score provides a splendid icing on the cake, evoking the more psychological films from Hitchcock such as Vertigo.
In summary, Nocturnal Animals is, by turns, cold, cynical, disturbing and desperately sad. Some have criticised it for lacking humanity, but I disagree with that assessment. On the contrary, I think Ford has crafted a penetrating insight into the human condition, especially with its merciless depiction of the price of pursuing materialism. Idealism, sensitivity and romanticism come crashing down in cascades of resentment and revenge. As a writer myself, I must admit I found myself uncomfortably identifying with one or two moments. For some it might just be too much of a bitter pill to swallow, but it certainly isn’t a film you’ll forget in a hurry.