Tom Ford seems to revel in making ugliness beautiful and beauty horrifying. The fashion designer, who moonlights as a writer/director, can use beautiful music and gorgeous cinematography to make grotesque women dancing nude seem compelling. On the flip side of that, his cold writing and barren set pieces can make the lives of the rich and beautiful seem like sad deformities of once-hopeful ambition. Both ways work to his advantage, especially when he makes a southern revenge drama within a broken romance drama as juicy as Nocturnal Animals.
The main story follows Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a successful art gallery owner in the lap of LA luxury feeling adrift in her life. Her fancy home is nearly empty, her husband (Armie Hammer) is nothing more than a good looking +1 at parties, and her work leaves her uninspired. One day, she receives the manuscript for a book called Nocturnal Animals, something her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) used to call her. Sure enough, the book is written by Edward and dedicated to Susan herself. She starts reading this fictional book about Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) driving through Texas in the dead of night. The family run into a gang of unruly locals, led by smooth talking Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who harasses the family to cruel extremes. This horrible story makes Susan harken back to her relationship with Edward and what went wrong, while the novel tells Tony’s desire to vengeance with the help of a local detective (Michael Shannon).
It’s amazing how well Ford juggles the three stories he has in Nocturnal Animals. They all have acceptable amounts of screentime, though the third story of Susan and Edward’s relationship seems rather rushed and come off more like bullet points of moments rather than developments. Regardless, Susan in real time and the events of the book balance out, never connecting in the literal sense but definitely inspired by Susan’s dark reality. Ford uses Edward as a vessel for American hope and optimism, then crushes it with Susan’s equally American drive for success and how she’ll jettison anything that’s slowing her down, even if it’s her school girl crush. He mirrors that in the fictional book, testing how far Tony would go to see justice done and whether that makes him a man defending his family’s honor or just as animalistic as the men who made him into a coward. What makes every punch of the movie land hard is the triple threat of Ford, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and composer Abel Korzeniowski. Ford weaves neo-noir wonders with McGarvey’s excellent shots of the dusty Texas plains and the icy LA art scene while Korzeniowski uses haunting strings to bring tension and drama that borders on camp but is utterly entertaining. It’s as if Ford has made the best (and meanest) soap opera ever, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
Not to mention the charm coming from the stellar cast. Adams (on a hot streak with this following fall’s Arrival) revels in Susan’s shallow vapidness and despair. Underneath the couture dresses and eye shadow, Adams sneaks in genuine hurt behind her eyes when she realizes the failure behind her success. Even when she’s covered in glamour, Adams takes a sledgehammer to every character she does and breaks it down beautifully (especially in the film’s final scene). Gyllenhaal (no stranger to multiple personalities on screen) is great to watch as Tony, trying to comprehend his cowardice when he didn’t save his family and justifying the dirty deeds he must do for retribution. Gyllenhaal’s not breaking a sweat here, but he remains compelling throughout as a story motivator. Shannon and especially Taylor-Johnson both give chilling turns in their supporting roles that egg on the evil in Tony’s story. Shannon as the grisly detective and Taylor-Johnson as the smirking psychopath both act as extreme reflections of Tony’s decisions that scare him to death, showing that Ford sees no righteous choice.
Matter of fact, Ford doesn’t seem to see any good people in Nocturnal Animals. He seems to always find a dirty monster behind the high class and the average soul, and the lengths he goes to prove that point in his film is fantastic. Nocturnal Animals thrives in its mission to mate beauty and ugliness and see which one the audience sees more of. What did I see? Both, and I wanted more of each.
3.5 out of 4 stars