Jake Richardson | 11/11/2016
Brooding, dark and disjointed, Tom Ford’s second feature film is a beautiful portrait of a man’s hurt and a woman’s regret.
Tom Ford launched onto the filmmaking scene with the stunningly beautiful film, A Single Man. What was prophesized to be a failure, and a vanity project, from the famous fashion designer wound up being one of the best films of the year. Colin Firth was lauded for his performance as the titular character struggling with the death of his husband, but the film really won points with critics and audiences alike for Ford (and cinematographer Eduard Grau)’s ability to make even an underwear drawer heart-wrenchingly picturesque.
With Nocturnal Animals, Ford solidifies himself as a force to be reckoned with in the film industry. Based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, Nocturnal Animals follows Susan (Amy Adams) – an art gallery curator who recently launched a new collection. While she is a success
in her field, her personal life is a mess. Her husband is cheating on her, and together they are broke. Cue the entrance of a mysterious manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Susan finds herself enraptured in the thrilling manuscript, and Ford switches from Susan’s real-world, to her flashbacks, all while interspersing them with the tale of Edward’s novel, played out with Gyllenhaal himself as the protagonist. In the end, Susan finds herself truly gripped and affected by her former lovers tale of love and loss, and she reaches out to him.
The three-time period, novel-based structure can at times prove jarring and confusing. Ford films present-day Susan in short bursts, with odd-length cuts and short, emotion-less dialogue. It feels strange and removed, and leads to an inherent tension in the viewer as they watch. Modern day Susan seems on the verge of some terrible horror. Adams plays her effortlessly; she’s a woman entirely in control of her life, but struggling with her emotional detachment in the face of her husband’s infidelity. While it isn’t Adams’ best performance of the month (that honour falls to Arrival), it is certainly a remarkably self-assured one.
It’s in the re-enactments of parts of Edward’s novel that Nocturnal Animals really finds its footing. Gyllenhaal gives a powerhouse performance as he struggles to find out what happened to his wife and daughter. He is raw, and vulnerable; a man racked with guilt over his inaction. He teams up with cop Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to take down criminal Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the deep-southern hick who raped and murdered his wife and daughter. Taylor-Johnson is jumpy, skittish and pure evil as Ray Marcus. He is the embodiment of the sort of deep-south misogynistic and classist views that recently lead to the election of Trump. His smirk as Gyllenhaal rages at him in a caravan towards the end of the second act is perfect.
All performances pale in comparison to Michael
Shannon’s though. He chews up dialogue and spits it out with utter relish. His disillusioned southern cop is a joy to watch. But this is part of the films problem. Watching Gyllenhaal and Shannon on screen is too enjoyable. When we switch back to the ‘present’, we find ourselves wishing we were watching the novelised ‘past’. This is particularly exacerbated by scripting of the modern day Adams drama and editing choices.
That’s not to say the film isn’t stunning. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is undeniably masterful, with each frame weeping beauty. Furthermore, Abel Korzeniowski’s score is equal parts rousing and chilling. At the end of the day, the story structure works to the detriments of these parts, and Ford’s second feature suffers for it.
Nocturnal Animals is a beautiful, well-acted and interesting film that solidifies Tom Ford as one of our best directors, but it is also a film that suffers from problematic structure. Nocturnal Animals falls victim to a classic problem; telling two stories simultaneously, and having the audience prefer one over the other.