“Nocturnal Animals,” director Tom Ford’s second film, begins with the filmmaker playfully pushing our buttons.
By the time the names of the actors and production team fade from sight, the audience may feel they’re in for a big goof.
Actually, what develops isn’t a comedy or even a satire of its art world setting. Ford has crafted something similar to “No Country For Old Men” and manipulates his audience as thoroughly as Alfred Hitchcock once did.
Amy Adams stars as Susan, an art dealer who receives a manuscript from Tony, her ex (Jake Gyllenhaal). The book is titled “Nocturnal Animals” and is dedicated to Susan. She reads the story alone in her expensive home and we witness Tony’s disturbing tale as it unfolds in her mind’s eye.
The story-within-the-film is about a husband named Edward (also played by Gyllenhaal) who is driving his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) on a long-distance road trip. Their night drive down a vast Texas highway and through miles of empty terrain is initially pleasant, until they encounter a very bad man named Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
As Susan turns the pages, the audience shares her engrossment with the novel, which takes unexpected and horrifying turns.
Some movies are so strong, they feel like they’re happening to you as you watch them. Your sense of distance from what’s happening on the screen becomes fuzzy. You find yourself responding directly to the unfolding tale. It can be an internal, emotional reaction or a brief grunt of “awww, no…” or something more colorful.
This portion of the film, Tony’s nightmarish tale, had that effect on me. The tension in the highway scene alone is almost unbearable.
Although Gyllenhaal briefly (and movingly) plays Tony, Adams’ ex, it’s his performance as Edward that will resonate the most. Edward’s journey is dread-inducing and taps directly into the core idea here. We watch him and wonder what we’d do if we were in his shoes. This portion of the movie reminded me of George Sluzier’s “The Vanishing.”
Should we consider Edward “weak” for his actions?
Ford’s film is a brilliant study of contrasts from the very first scene. I won’t describe it but outrageous opening credits sequence is Ford establishing a theme as much as he’s pushing our buttons. Everything that follows is, likewise, an ongoing means of variation. Adams’ Susan lives in a chic, art-drenched, glossy world that she (mostly) controls.
The tension in the highway scene alone is almost unbearable.
Her husband (a perfectly cast Armie Hammer) is clearly up to no good. The way Susan behaves towards her husband’s deceptions suggests either denial or a sad understanding between them. The world of Tony’s novel is the opposite: a harsh, lawless western landscape.
Characters mirror one another in appearance (note the similarity between Adams and Fisher), and the imagery creates telling, wordless portraits for the characters and their thoughts. As in Ford’s extraordinary film debut, “A Single Man,” he is once again asking what it means to be a man and how an artist struggles with being “weak” in a masculine world. With its dark journey into badlands, men driven by obsession and the themes of revenge and lies, it brings to mind Hitchcock as well as David Lynch and the Coen brothers.
Adams shows us the heart beneath her cold, not easily likeable character and Gyllenhaal invests mightily in an equally challenging part. Michael Shannon is excellent in a rich character role and Taylor-Johnson has never been better. The “Kick Ass” star embodies evil as a walking, swaggering bully.
FAST FACT: Tom Ford’s other career — world famous fashion designer — earns roughly $1 billion annually in sales.
While “Nocturnal Animals” is certainly a “thinker,” it’s also suspenseful, ravishing to look at and always entertaining. You won’t notice at first how much it has on its mind. A week later, many scenes are still dancing in my head as much as Tony’s novel haunts Susan.
Some will find the conclusion frustrating and, indeed, it is frustrating. I wanted more from the final scene. In hindsight, it connects to that lingering question that is brought up early on: if a man can’t defend himself or act cruel, is it a sign of weakness? Is being a man about making the right choice or behaving the way men are expected to?
There is filmmaking genius in Ford’s risky, wrenching film, which is among the best of 2016.