Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals ensnares the audience’s attention within the first second of it’s opening title sequence. The film opens with shots of morbidly obese nude women holding lit sparklers and scantily festooned with cheerleading pom-poms. Just when you thought that the sequence couldn’t get stranger, Ford decides these women ( some of which aren’t just morbidly obese but deformed as well) should be gyrating in slow motion as well. If audiences can hang on through an incredibly bizarre opening sequence, they will be rewarded with an exceptionally crafted film anchored by tremendous performances from Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhall, and Micheal Shannon.
We quickly realize that the opening sequence is part of a conceptual art piece hosted by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who appears to be a significant player in the Los Angeles art scene. Her husband, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) is a miserable financier who seems to be bored with their life in LA and interested in heading back to New York City to “score” his next big deal (which we come to realize means cheat on Susan). After her latest art show, she heads home and finds a package from her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhall). Upon opening it up, she sees that her ex-husband has finished his first novel “Nocturnal Animals” and she’s immediately shaken when she realizes it’s dedicated to her. Susan drops everything and begins reading his novel.
It’s at this point where Ford truly shines as a director. He effortlessly manages to weave in the original narrative with a parallel story stemming from Sheffield’s novel. Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhall) is your typical family man. He’s taking his wife (Isla Fisher) and teenager daughter (Ellie Bamber) on a road trip through West Texas. In the middle of the night, the Hastings have a run in with a bunch of hillbillies lead by a guy named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Their run in leads to a small accident which causes both of them to pull off the road. Predictably, things go from bad to worse in a sequence of events the is sure to stick with audiences long after the film ends. What’s confusing at this point in the movie is why Edward’s novel is dedicated to Susan? Did something horrifying lead to their divorce?
We start to get clarity as we begin to learn about Susan and Edward’s marriage in the film’s third narrative. What we learn is they were both young and very idealistic. Edward is a broke author who’s trying to find inspiration for his first novel, and Susan is struggling with whether to pursue art as a calling or business. She wants Edward to be more “practical” and go back to school. Edward thinks that she’s becoming more and more like her mother. A significant life changing event occurs and their relationship is beyond repair.
One of the highlights of this film was the work Tom Ford. Ford does tremendous work, creating different realities for all three of these narratives to take place. For example, Susan’s “art” narrative is seemingly fake and very artificial looking, and tony’s “road trip” narrative is bleak, bloody, and brutal. The writing is brutal, blunt, and seemingly coming from that dark place that people go when their world is shattered.
The cinematography in the film was extremely effective. Seamus McGarvey seemingly had a deep understanding that the pain in this film didn’t just stem from the brutal acts they committed but the emotional scars that were inflicted on each other. For example, when Susan realizes Hutton has been going to New York to cheat on her with what she assumes is a much younger woman, McGarvey keeps the shot on Susan, and you see what little self-worth she had shatter as she blankly stares off into the dark reaches of her kitchen.
While Adams and Gyllenhall are equally tremendous in the film, Micheal Shannon is who stood out most to me. Shannon plays Bobby Andes, a character in Sheffield’s novel. Andes is the Texas Ranger who is brought in to help Mr. Hastings get the bottom of what happened on that dark dirt road in the middle of the night in West Texas. Andes has a strong sense of what’s right and will do whatever it takes to see justice served (even if it means taking the law into his hands). Shannon delivers a commanding performance that will most certainly draw the attention of award voters.