With Nocturnal Animals, Writer-Director Tom Ford delivers his second feature film. Is it an engaging thriller or too Avant-garde for its own good?
Based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, Nocturnal Animals tells the story of Susan (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner that seemingly has it all. She’s married to Hutton (Armie Hammer) and the two of them live a decadent lifestyle. One day, Susan receives a package from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t seen in nineteen years. The package contains his novel manuscript that he has dedicated to her and called Nocturnal Animals, which was how he sometimes referred to her. The novel is about a man named Tony (Gyllenhaal) on a road trip with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). While on a dark highway, Tony and his family are harassed by another car driven by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his buddies. After Ray forces Tony off the road, an altercation ensues and Ray kidnaps Tony’s wife and daughter, leaving Tony in the desert. When he finally reaches a working phone, Tony contacts the police and is assigned Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), an odd lawman who will pursue justice at any cost. As Susan reads Edward’s novel, she flashes back to their time together and finds parallels in her past and his book.
Like Detective Andes, Nocturnal Animals is odd. It immediately opens with a scene built for shock value and it continues to try and shock its audience throughout the story-within-a-story. That story is an interesting thriller, but it is rendered moot in a way, because we know it’s simply a character reading the story. It is further complicated by the fact that there is zero payoff from Edward’s fiction. Yes, it serves as allegory for how Edward sees his relationship and marriage to Susan, but that is hardly compelling when we see what she does to him from her point of view. There is no weird twist where the guys in the book are real or this really happened to Edward. It is simply two stories running parallel to each other with no real payoff. The ending is completely flat, which is disappointing because I was hoping fiction and reality would intersect somehow, but no dice. One thing the film definitely has going for it is the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. McGarvey essentially had to shoot two different films between the modern architecture of “reality” and the desolate desert scenes from Edward’s book. Some stunning photography here.
Despite the overall story being a letdown, the performances are really quite good. Amy Adams is as bitchy as can be as Susan, but as she reads Edward’s novel, we see her soften – going back to her old self as she was when they knew each other. Gyllenhaal does fine work playing two roles – one a passive, sensitive writer and the other a man on the edge of sanity. Taylor-Johnson is repulsive as Ray and there’s no higher compliment I can pay him than that. However, as is usually the case, the film is stolen by Michael Shannon’s Bobby Andes. He’s just so entertaining in the role. I wanted more of him in the story.
While it features great performances and looks beautiful, Nocturnal Animals is ultimately a disappointment. Though the built-in thriller is interesting on its own, in the end, the story goes nowhere and it’s terribly frustrating when so much else in the movie is going right.