There’s a Fellini-esque beginning to Tom Ford’s new film, Nocturnal Animals. As the opening credits roll, plus-sized women, nearly naked, dance, grimace, and perform, mimicking beauty contest winners and majorettes. When the camera pulls back, we’re in a gallery owned by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who sits on the sidelines looking unimpressed and bored by her latest art installation. (The women are now lying facedown on platforms.)
The new exhibition is declared a success, but Susan is not in a celebratory mood. Her husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), didn’t show up for her opening, the couple’s relationship as cold as their steel and glass home. Susan suggests they try to reconnect by spending a weekend at the beach, but Hutton announces he must fly to New York to rescue a deal. Despite their opulent surroundings, they’re going broke. And, he’s having an affair.
Michael Shannon and Jake Gyllenhaal
Susan’s ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a writer, has sent her his novel, which he dedicated to her and titled Nocturnal Animals, a nod to her inability to sleep. Since she hasn’t spoken to him in 19 years, she’s both pleased and perplexed by his gesture. When she begins reading the book, however, the violent story that unfolds in the pages is unsettling and pushes her to revisit their relationship and how it ended.
Susan and Edward grew up together in West Texas and reconnect after they bump into each other in New York. Over lunch at a posh restaurant, Susan’s mother, Anne (a delicious Real Housewife turn by Laura Linney), discourages her from marrying Edward, a “weak” man who will never make enough money. Susan balks at her mother’s assessment but comes to the harsh realization that she’s more like her mother than she wants to admit. An artist, Susan shunned the struggling lifestyle of a creative for the lucrative business side of running a gallery. When Edward won’t give up trying to become a novelist, she leaves him. But marriage to Hutton proves to be even less satisfying.
The novel’s protagonist, Tony (played by Gyllenhaal), is driving to West Texas with his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher), and daughter, India (Ellie Bamber). They are chased by some local ya-hoos and forced off the road. This is Deliverance on a lonely highway and Ford draws out the scene until it’s almost unbearable. Laura and India lash out against the men, while Tony tries to reason with them, a strategy that is ineffective and merely makes him look, yes, weak. Two of the men drive off with Tony’s family and he’s dumped in a deserted area. He finally finds his way to civilization and reports his missing wife and daughter. The local cop, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), who takes on the case, bonds with Tony and the two work for two years to bring the men to justice.
Tom Ford’s first film, 2009’s A Single Man, starring Colin Firth as a gay man in the 1960s who was unable to openly mourn his lover, received very positive reviews. Nocturnal Animals proves he’s no one shot wonder. He’s both a talented writer and director. And, of course, his fashion genius is evident in the film’s styling, from the outfits worn not only by Adams, but by one of the gallery workers played by Jena Malone, to sets, including the gallery and the Hutton home. Even the table decor, in several of the scenes, is eye-catching.
Adams’ character is multi-facted and the actress brilliantly transforms herself, depending upon where Susan is in her life story. Small touches make a difference. With bright red lipstick, her hair sleek and worn to the side, she’s the ice queen, tamping down her emotions. The younger Susan who fell in love with Edward, wears no makeup and is open and vulnerable. It’s telling that when she agrees to meet her ex-husband, she wipes off her red lipstick, ready to bring back the old Susan before she became too much like her mother.
Gyllenhaal delivers one of the best performances of his career. As Edward, he nails the sensitive, sincere small town boy who marries his first crush and can’t believe his good fortune. But when things go south, his efforts to make her stay come off as desperate. When we finally learn at the end of the film how Susan delivered the final blow that ended their marriage, we understand that perhaps the novel was not so much dedicated to her as aimed at her.
Nocturnal Animals opens nationwide November 18, 2016.
Photo Credit: Merrick Morton/Focus Features