Nocturnal Animals is the second film from fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford, after his debut film from 2009 A Single Man. And while A Single Man was a perfectly fine –if somewhat unimpressive– film, Nocturnal Animals is anything but that. And I was quite frankly, in awe that Tom Ford delivered something this brilliant on just his second time behind the camera.
The film follows the story of an art gallery owner named Susan (Amy Adams) who one day receives a book manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) — a man she left 20 years earlier — asking for her opinion of his writing. As she reads, she is drawn into the fictional life of Tony Hastings, a math professor whose family vacation turns violent. And it isn’t long before she finds herself recalling her first marriage and confronting some dark truths about herself.
To put it simply, Nocturnal Animals left me floored. I love it. It has that perfect balance of style and substance. Which means it’s gorgeous and meticulously crafted from the first frame to the last. But at the same time, it’s also riveting and intense. And always kept me at the edge of my seat.
The film basically focuses on these three stories of past, present and fiction that eventually come together as a collective piece. So what you get is essentially two movies in one. One is this kind of melodrama about the discontent and emptiness that comes with leading a life of materialism, which operates in the past and present. While on the other hand, you have this fictional story from the manuscript that Amy Adams’ character receives that’s this down-and-dirty West Texas revenge thriller that feels like something between Sam Peckinpah and the Coen Brothers.
It’s amazing how seamlessly Ford toys with the structure of this film. Everything is done with such subtlety and panache. In the case of flashback sequences, I’m mostly just timing my watch. But here they are done so well. You don’t know when there’s one coming but there are enough nuances to that scene that are enough to tell you which timeline it takes place in. The performances are fantastic. Jake Gyllenhaal does an amazing job playing basically two different roles. And though it may not be as good as the last time he played dual roles — Hint: it’s that movie with that giant fucking spider at the end– it’s a superb performance nonetheless that shows how well he can play emotionally fragile characters. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is literally unrecognizable in a wonderfully creepy performance as a serial-killer/rapist.
But the highlight is easily Michael Shannon. And goddamn is he good in this. He plays a West Texas detective who is ill and has pretty much ran out of fucks to give and boy oh boy does he steal every. fucking. scene. he is in. He gives a mesmerizing performance that is not only my favorite of the year, but it might just be the best Michael Shannon performance period. And that isn’t something I say lightly.
I won’t attempt to comment much on the story and what it symbolizes because quite frankly, I found Ford’s metaphor both incredibly on-the-nose and corny and I didn’t care much for it. But I also feel it’s one of those movies where it doesn’t really matter what it’s about. It needs to be enjoyed and appreciated for what it is; a riveting and compelling melodrama that doubles as a gritty and increasingly intense psychological thriller and also happens to represent the best of Tom Ford’s talents as a filmmaker.
Sometimes revenge is a dish best served on a paperback.