The stylish new thriller from fashion designer and director Tom Ford comes with a dark and intriguing trailer, which hooked me the first time I saw it.
When gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) she’s surprised, as she hasn’t seen him for almost 20 years. It turns out to be the manuscript for his soon to be published novel, Nocturnal Animals.
She begins to read the book and discovers it is dedicated to her.
The film then cuts sharply into Edward’s narrative, where Tony, also played by Gyllenhaal, and his wife (Isla Fisher, looking very like Amy Adams) and daughter are taking a road-trip through a remote area of West Texas when they are run off the road by three red-necks.
What follows is a dark and twisting story of violence and revenge, which has disturbing parallels with Susan’s own story.
From the very first shot, Nocturnal Animals is uncomfortable and shocking to watch. The opening credits drew nervous titters from the audience in the cinema as the camera zooms in sharply on an obese woman’s breasts as she dances around, before panning brazenly downwards, then switching to a series of naked women, all dancing gratuitously, parading their bodies, challenging you to look away or grimace at their imperfections.
This display is soon revealed to be part of a new exhibition at Susan’s gallery, where she is hosting a launch event. As the camera follows her home, into a beautiful but minimalistic LA mansion, it’s clear her life is just as cold and empty as her house.
So when Edward’s manuscript arrives, she snatches at the opportunity to feel a connection to the man she once loved and has always felt guilty for leaving. To Susan, Edward represents a future she once wanted, when she was young and idealistic, before the material side of life caught up with her. She loved him for his sensitive nature and his creative aspirations, but as her own repressed Republican mother warns her, the qualities she loves about Edward now, she will come to hate. He’s weak, and she is sure he will never be enough for Susan.
This weak version of Edward is paralleled in his novel. When his family is victimised by three young men in the wilds of Texas, Tony can do nothing but try and appease them. As the situation escalates, he still doesn’t take the chance to intervene, a fact which haunts him later in the story.
The scenes with Tony’s family are almost painful to watch. They aren’t particularly violent, and they aren’t gory. But the emotion and the sense of foreboding are visceral. It’s clear something is going to happen, as the young men, led by the sinister Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) taunt them and refuse to let them leave the scene of the accident.
One of the strengths of this film is the sheer force of the acting. Aaron Taylor-Johnson perfectly captures the strutting red-neck Ray, who pretends to be a perfectly nice guy until the moment is right to strike. And Michael Shannon’s turn as the laconic Texas detective who helps Tony in the aftermath of the accident is also fantastic.
But the story keeps coming back to Susan, alone in her glass walled mansion as she reads the dark and frightening book her ex-husband has written for her. Each time Tony’s story reaches a crescendo, we cut to Susan, putting down the book as she wrestles with her emotions.
The film is shot beautifully in noir style and Ford litters the action with visual parallels. When Susan is in bed reading the novel, Tony lies on his bed worrying about his family. The shot cuts between each of them in the shower, absorbed by their own troubles. Susan walks past a painting on the wall of her house; look closer and it depicts Ray and his friend Lou, in a remote field with a shotgun. Even their postures give away the intricacies of their relationship: another story within a story.
Nocturnal Animals is one of the most uncomfortable cinematic experiences I’ve had for a long time; but that is the whole point. The film pushes its audience to confront their perception of the narrative: how would you react in such an extreme situation? Are you a good person? What does it mean to be strong?
The film is often outwardly simplistic: it’s full of clean shots, linear narrative and relationships quickly defined. A host of big name actors appear in one scene, providing a glimpse into Susan’s life, but never allowing us to get too close. It’s a powerful reflection of her character, disappointed with the privileged but meaningless life she lives and ultimately alone. Edward’s earlier words come back to haunt her: “If you love someone, you have to be careful with it. You might not get it again.”
Nocturnal Animals is a powerful piece of cinema that isn’t easy to enjoy, but it’s all the more memorable for it. It will stay with you long after the closing credits suddenly roll.
And it will make you think twice about giving another driver the finger next time you’re out on the road.