In director/writer Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals”, a character advises another who is aspiring to be an author to “stop writing about himself.” He replies by saying that everyone writes about themselves and it’s clear after about fifteen minutes of this movie that Ford has done exactly that.
Ford’s script (very loosely based on the 1993 Austin Wright novel, “Tony and Susan”) examines three separate narratives. The first is the life of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a soulless and vapid Los Angeles art gallery owner whose world is filling in for Ford’s fashion design reality. Susan’s second marriage to Hutton (Armie Hammer) is failing for several reasons, among them being that they are broke and living a faux high society lifestyle.
Susan strolls through her current life like a zombie, merely mildly fazed by her husband’s obvious lack of interest in her and more concerned with her appearance to other socialites. She begins to reevaluate after receiving an advance copy of “Nocturnal Animals”, a novel written by her estranged ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal).
As Susan reads, we are shown Edward’s dark and violent novel about the tragedy surrounding Tony Hastings (also Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife and daughter (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber). The series of events, which are led by the psychopathic Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), are not for the squeamish and are steeped with unflinching brutality.
Needless to say, the novel shakes Susan to her core and she begins to think back to moments in her past that led to her current state and potentially inspired Edward’s writing. Her thoughts are shown as flashbacks to a time when she wasn’t the soulless person she is today.
These three narratives are seamlessly edited together and each one has merit, particularly once Detective Bobby Andres (Michael Shannon) shows up in the “novel storyline” to help Tony track down the offenders responsible for his family’s ill-fated night.
As one would expect, Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” is gorgeous. He and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey treat each storyline differently and effectively have created three movies in one. The dark blues and greens highlight the loneliness of Susan’s current world while the sun-drenched yellows simultaneously show the beauty and desolate nature of west Texas.
Ford’s ambitious screenplay allows every actor to show how talented they can be. In a scene stealing performance, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray is terrifying. He portrays this lunatic with so much reserve and calmness that it only adds to the terror.
Michael Shannon’s Detective Andres is much like Ray, only without the sociopathic tendencies. He is also quite menacing with the only difference being his sense of justice. If there is a problem with “Nocturnal Animals”, it’s going to be the battle between Shannon and Taylor-Johnson of who comes out of it with Best Supporting Actor nominations.
Jake Gyllenhaal carries a massive load in “Nocturnal Animals” and each role is similar. His Tony clearly becomes everything that Edward wishes he could be and his transformation only becomes clear once the movie ends. Gyllenhaal and Shannon both face the same “problem”: they are so good every time out that their respective bars are set so high that their greatness is sometimes overlooked.
If “Arrival” doesn’t do it, “Nocturnal Animals” will get Amy Adams her much deserved Best Actress Oscar. Adams’ Susan is the villain in her portion of this three-pronged tale and she shows regret and sadness while feeling trapped in a world she created. It could be argued that she is also playing two roles, with one being her current, cynical self and the other, a long-forgotten kind and thoughtful person.
It has taken Tom Ford seven years for his follow up to “A Single Man” and it is worth the wait. “Nocturnal Animals” is as ambitious as a movie can get and could easily have fallen right on its face. Instead, Ford has created a noir that has somehow combined a drama about marriage with “Straw Dogs” via allegory. This kind of creativity is truly rare and proves that Ford is one of the finest filmmakers working today.