It’s been a long time coming for fans of 2009’s “A Single Man”, the impressive début feature that marked the arrival of an exciting new director in Tom Ford. But now, the wait is finally over and it was certainly worth it. Indeed, Ford makes a bold return to cinema with “Nocturnal Animals” a film that essentially offers two strong films for the price of one.
Based on the novel “Tony and Susan”, the film puts us into the headspace of the titular Susan (played by Amy Adams) and the lingering effects of her failed relationship with ex-husband, a writer named Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). A successful art gallery owner with a handsome new beau (played by Armie Hammer), her privileged life is the envy of many. But Susan remains dissatisfied with her love and work lives, causing her to retreat into herself. When an unexpected package arrives one day however, she is forced to confront her past. Wrapped inside is a novel dedicated to her from Edward, titled “Nocturnal Animals“. But it is far from flattering, detailing the horrific, violent tale of a family’s fatal run-in with a band of hooligans (clearly meant to represent the couple and their daughter). And as she reads between the sordid lines of the revenge-driven story, her understanding of herself and her relationships comes into sharper focus.
Ford first introduces the audience to the real world storyline and its captivating protagonist Susan. And immediately, the trademark qualities of Tom Ford’s style are brought to the fore. The sleek surfaces, luscious score and its flawlessly styled female protagonist combine for an aesthetic of icy refinement. Indeed, you’ll hardly find another director as capable of crafting such sterile, spare interiors that you nevertheless want to live in.
Indeed, Susan’s world is as chilly as her personality. But when you’re as fierce as Amy Adams looks and acts in this role, it becomes something to aspire to. Dressed to the nines and often confined to her own private spaces as she ponders the brutal novel gifted to her, she is an attraction unto herself. One could easily envision a film where she simply struts around her home and ruminates on life.
Much like “Gone Girl” the film’s central conflict largely comes down to the inability of the men in Susan’s life to live up to her standards and expectations. And Ford effectively conveys this through various scenes in Susan’s austere world. But even more impactful is the ordeal he puts Gyllenhaal’s character through in the symbolic, fictional tale which takes up the other half of the film. And all the while, the thought-provoking script touches on the deep scars that volatile relationships can leave.
As Ford audaciously interweaves the cold art house drama with the more rugged revenge thriller, it’s a frequent jolt to the system. Indeed, the first transition – a frightening confrontation on a dark road – gets the heart racing, establishing the underlying tension that grips you until the very last scene. Whereas Isla Fisher stands in for Adams in this scenario, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal who takes center stage as Tony, a vulnerable man wracked with overwhelming guilt. Through his harrowing journey, the actor adds another intense, fraught performance to his recent string of successes. And alongside him are two further impressive performances from a uniformly strong cast. Namely Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the film’s most ruthless antagonist and Michael Shannon as the unflinchingly determined lieutenant who helps Tony in his pursuit of justice.
Ultimately, what it all boils down to is a grand, sometimes overwhelming feast for the senses. Combining cerebral art house elegance with nail-biting, gritty thrills, “Nocturnal Animals“ is the cinematic equivalent of having your cake and eating it too. So come with a hearty appetite and indulge in its delicious, acidic pleasures.
“Nocturnal Animals” opens in select theaters November 18, 2016.