Based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel ‘Tony and Susan’, Tom Ford takes his second stint in the Director’s chair for Nocturnal Animals – and yes, expect a couple of pretty spectacular outfits.
Susan (Amy Adams) is a disaffected art gallery owner living as a cultural elite in L.A. Her marriage to handsome, untrustworthy Hutton (Armie Hammer) is coming apart at the seams, and she finds herself frequently, guiltily remembering her ex-husband of 25 years ago, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).
She is therefore unsurprisingly spooked when the manuscript for Edward’s first novel suddenly arrives at her door, with a note requesting her opinion and another mysteriously dedicating the story to her. Popping on some overtly fashionable frames (not of Ford’s design, as it happens), she begins to read, and is unsettled by what she finds.
Stay with the film through its extraordinarily bizarre opening sequence, and you’ll be seduced into a chilly world of neo-noir undertones, beautiful design and stone-cold brutality.
Edward’s ambiguously self-referential novel proves deeply symbolic for Susan, using the modern wilderness of rural West Texas to isolate and emphasise the horror of its fictional events, though she struggles to piece together what exactly her ex-husband is trying to say to her. This proves a challenge for the audience as well, as I found myself puzzling over what the story-in-the-story actually meant to those in the film, on top of what the film itself meant to me – and I still haven’t quite figured it out.
The portrayal of wilful evil and queasy justice is gripping – especially helped by Michael Shannon’s wild-eyed, chain-smoking Texan detective – but with so much melodramatic nastiness to contend with, I felt there wasn’t quite the right on-screen reflection to justify it. Ford attempts to connect the dots with intercut reaction shots from Susan (often in baths or showers, for some reason), and occasional flashbacks to her relationship with Edward – but these often feel randomly stitched together, without any significant meaning to the structure.
What this leaves you with is a tense, uncomfortable, immaculately produced couple of hours in your cinema seat, with a vague feeling that what you’re watching probably means a great deal to somebody.
While the cast are uniformly excellent, with a chameleon-esque performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson as lead thug Ray, and more proof that Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams can handle whatever is thrown their way, I couldn’t shake the overall impression that at its core, Nocturnal Animals might actually be hollow – but then, perhaps that’s the point after all.