Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen
Director: Tom Ford
Writer: Tom Ford
After having worked as the creative director for both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford has become a master of blending art, style and beauty in his films. In Nocturnal Animals he has created one of the most meticulously crafted and striking films of the year. It is an ambiguous film and the meaning of Ford’s images is not always clear, as with the very first shots which provoked outrage among both critics and viewers for what they deemed to be gratuity or body shaming. I must confess that I’m somewhat confounded by those images as well. I am restraining myself from revealing the nature of these images because I think the shock must have a role to play in the effect that Ford is going for. I will say that these images did make me feel uncomfortable but they also made me critically aware of my discomfort. Now I’m asking myself whether I was right to feel uncomfortable at all, a question that I suspect Ford must have expected from many of his viewers. This film is so perplexingly uncomfortable and beautiful at once that I think Ford might have been disappointed had I not left the screening feeling confounded.
After hosting a conceptual art exhibit at her gallery Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receives a manuscript for a novel penned by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Susan, living a dejected life of passionless work and love with her adulterous husband Hutton (Arnie Hammer), is captivated by the novel that has been dedicated to her. It tells the dark story of family man Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) whose holiday with wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and India (Ellie Bamber) takes a horrific turn when they encounter a gang of reprobates led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This story provokes memories of Susan’s relationship with Edward and the troubles that drew them apart. He wanted her to pursue her artistic calling whereas she wanted him to be more realistic about his literary aspirations. As Susan reads more of Edward’s novel it becomes clearer to her that the disturbing, devastating story he has conceived is an allusion towards the terrible betrayal that destroyed their marriage.
There are three interrelated narratives being told that Ford blends together into one incredible whole. One is the story of an utterly miserable person reflecting on the choices that have led her to where she is. The other is a dark and twisted tale of loss and revenge. Finally, there is the story of an idealistic romance that woefully (and perhaps inevitably) ends in heartbreak. I was particularly struck by how invested and horrified I, much like Susan, was by the second narrative considering that it’s a fictional story within a fictional story. That narrative alone would have made for a compelling film complete with stellar performances by Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon as a worn-down lawman with nothing left to lose. The ultimate story that is being told however adds even greater depth and darkness to what is already an unsettling tale. Isla Fisher’s character for instance serves Edward’s story not only as a wife for his protagonist but also as a clear stand in for Susan. When we see what happens to Tony’s wife later in the novel, it invites all sorts of compelling questions about what exactly Edward is trying to tell his ex-wife by sending her this manuscript and dedicating it to her, especially in light of what we later learn about their marriage.
We see Adams play Susan as both a naïve romantic full of dreams and fancies and as a shell of her former self rendered numb by her cold, empty life. Even when Adams is simply reading the manuscript, she is performing. Her distraught reactions reinforce the ominous nature of Edward’s story every bit as much as Ford’s tone and style in his representation. In this film Susan undergoes a crisis of conscience as she contemplates whether she is being punished for an awful mistake and Adams is to be applauded for deftly conveying her tumultuous, troubled state of mind in a remarkably restrained, understated performance. Gyllenhaal’s Edward also provides an intriguing figure as the Susan’s spurned, estranged ex-husband. The film sets him up as an almost ethereal figure by providing us with two different versions of him: we see the Edward that Susan remembers in her memories and his representation of himself in the novel he’s written. Thus as the film draws closer to the climatic meeting between them, the more intrigued we are to see who he is today and how he really feels about Susan.
The final scene is one that has sparked much debate amongst viewers. Some might call it a confounding ending, but I for one would expect nothing less from such a confounding film as Nocturnal Animals. The film is fascinating in its dark and twisted nature and is almost sickening in its beauty. You want to look away but you just can’t. The cinematography, the colours, the music; it is a film that completely envelops you and refuses to let go. Some scenes are entirely unbearable to watch and yet, much like when I first saw Blue Velvet and A Clockwork Orange, my eyes were fixed squarely on the screen the entire time. It isn’t as violent a film as those two are but it is similar in its dreadful intensity and disturbed artistry. Most of the wounds that are inflicted in this film are emotional ones (the ones in the “real world” anyway) but they are severe all the same. Nocturnal Animals is also an ambiguous film, the kind that believes in providing the pieces to the puzzle but won’t assemble them for you. Watching this film was a gruelling experience but it was also a mesmerising one.