What’s the most malicious and deliriously satiating way you can think of getting revenge on an ex who betrayed you horribly? In Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, novelist Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets pretty creative in his attempts to strike back at the girl (Amy Adams) who wronged him decades before. This is a film about darkness, secrets, hate, cruelty, long harboured hurt and how such things erupt into violence, both physical and that of the mind.
Adams is Susan, a wealthy gallery owner married to a hunky yet vacuous playboy (Armie Hammer), terminally unhappy yet cemented in an inability, or perhaps unwillingness to do anything about it. One day she receives a yet to be published book from her ex husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) dedicated to her in an eerily specific way. As she settles in to read it in her drafty, lonesome yuppie mansion while hubby flies around the country cheating on her, Ford treats us to a story within a story as we see the novel unfold. In the book, Gyllenhaal plays a family man driving his wife (Isla Fisher, who uncannily and perhaps deliberately resembles Adams) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) across a creepy, desolate stretch of rural Texas. When night falls, a pack of roving, predatory bumpkins led by Aaron Taylor Johnson howl out of the night like angry ghosts, terrorize the three of them relentlessly, then kidnap Fisher and their daughter without remorse. This leaves Gyllenhaal alone and desperate, his only friend being crusty lawman Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a gaunt force of righteous fury who serves as avatar to carry out some actions that the protagonist is perhaps too meek for. Together they trawl the southern night looking for clues and a sense of resolution, but one gets the sense that this is a hollow venture, already plagued by the acrid tendrils of tragedy from right off the bat. So, what do the contents of this novel have to do with what is going on up in the real world? Well… that’s the mystery, isn’t it. Pay close attention to every narrative beat and filter the distilled emotions of each plot point through an abstract lens, and then the author’s gist is painfully understood.
The interesting thing about this film is that we don’t even really have any contact with Gyllenhaal in the real world and present time outside of this story he’s written. Everything he has to say, every corner of anguish is laid bare and bounced off of Adams’s traumatized, depressed housewife with startling clarity and horror. She gives a fantastic performance, as does Jake as the lead character of the novel. Shannon makes brilliant work of a character who is essentially just an archetypal plot device, but the magnetic actor finds brittle humour, deadly resolve and animalistic menace in the role. Other solid work is provided by Andrea Riseborough, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Michael Sheen, Jena Malone and Laura Linney in a stinging cameo as Adams’s manipulative dragon of a mother. Ford shows incredible skill in not just telling a crisp, immersive and aesthetically pleasing visual story, but making those visuals count for something in terms of metaphor, foreshadowing, hidden clues and gorgeous colour palettes that mirror the stormy mental climates of these broken, flawed human beings. He also displays a mastery over directing performances out of the actors as well as editing and atmosphere that draws you right in from the unconventional opening credits (those fat chicks) to the striking, devastating final few frames that cap off the film with a darkly cathartic kick to the ribs. Add to that a wonderfully old school original score by Abel Korzeniowski and layered, concise cinematography from Seamus McGarvey and you have one hell of a package. A downbeat, mature drama that comes from the deep and complex well of human emotions and a film that uses the medium to reiterate the kind of raw, disarming power that art can have over our souls, both as a theme of its story and as a piece of work itself. Great film.