Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is surely a contender for being one of the most beguiling, well-crafted and explosively gripping films of 2016, containing some of the year’s most outstanding performances and one of its most original narrative structures. My first time viewing it was an intense and truly memorable cinema experience, and one I haven’t been able to stop thinking about ever since. Featuring appearances from the ever-mercurial Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, as well as career-defining turns from Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon, the acting in Nocturnal Animals is nothing short of exceptional, and truly a cornerstone of the film’s brilliance.
Perhaps most crucial to its composition is its split narrative, dividing events into three distinct timelines: how these events intertwine is, in some ways, apparent, and in others far more vague, relying on viewers’ own judgement and willingness to delve into the many mysterious and carefully-placed meanings that can be drawn from aspects of the story. We are introduced to Susan (Amy Adams) at the film’s outset, upon whom the film was originally based in Austin Wright’s 1993 novel, Tony and Susan. She is a successful art gallery director who seemingly has everything she wants, but as things progress we come to realise the hollow, passionless nature of her relationship with her caring but distant husband, Walker (Armie Hammer) and her dissatisfaction with her current situation. She unexpectedly receives a delivery from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), containing the manuscript for a novel he has completed writing, Nocturnal Animals, with a request that she read it. As Susan begins to read, the ‘violent’ and ‘sad’ content of the story visibly troubles her, and this is where the lines between narratives begin to blur.
As well as the present day timeline in which Susan reads the novel, interspersed with the growing uncertainty and fragmentation of her everyday life, the events which take place within the novel are also played out before us. The novel details of father and husband, Tony Hastings, and his vengeful journey after he and his family are violently terrorised by a miscreant group on an isolated highway, fronted by the terrifying and unhinged Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). His plight is assisted by the jaded and cynical town sheriff, Bobby Andes, who is determined to bring the perpetrators of the unsavoury events endured by Tony and his family to ‘justice’. Michael Shannon’s spine-chilling delivery of this role completely brings the novel segment to life, and when coupled with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal of Ray, a real, palpable sense of fear is created which doesn’t let up for the entirety of the film, and is a mark of Tom Ford’s directorial prowess.
Essentially, the audience experiences the enthralling story of Tony Hastings unfold at the same time as Susan, and this where the film’s genius lies. Whilst exploring this narrative, we are also presented with Susan’s flashbacks to her failed relationship with Edward. Her initial adoration of Edward’s romantic, idealistic, but directionless personality later turns sour, as warned by her almost prophetic mother, who guarantees her daughter that she will eventually come to desire the ‘bourgeoisie’ luxuries she so vehemently rejects in her youth. This is where we start to question the extent to which the events which take place in Edward’s novel symbolically embody the anguish he felt at the tail-end of his relationship with Susan, a relationship he didn’t want to leave and was ultimately snatched away from him with minimal compassion, tact or consideration.
Visually, the film is striking and clinical, ultimately mirroring the coldness with which Susan apparently discarded her former marriage and every aspect of the life that came with it, in favour of her new found indulgent and financially-secure lifestyle. It is edited intelligently, in such a way that ideas are planted which allow the viewer to speculate on the atmosphere between the estranged couple and how the novel’s contents represent Edward’s insatiable desire for revenge, and the trauma his experiences with Susan caused him. The decision to cast Gyllenhaal in the roles of both Edward and Tony was a shrewd one, perhaps initially providing audiences with a lot to absorb and make sense of, but paying off hugely in terms of building this dichotomy between Edward’s experiences, and the emotional weight they carry internally.
Nocturnal Animals is only Tom Ford’s second directorial effort, succeeding 2009’s well-received A Single Man, and suggesting the presence of a truly great new director. His roots in the fashion design industry are clearly manifested in the film’s style, which enhances Susan’s character arc wonderfully. Tonally, Nocturnal Animals is electrifying, tense and frightening, combining elements of horror with drama to create something delightfully unusual. Watching it can be described as like having a stone in your shoe, with its many uncomfortable scenes making for intensely riveting viewing. If your experience with it is anything like mine, you’ll be squirming in your seat throughout its duration, consumed with awe at just how deeply the events of the film resonate with both the characters and the audience simultaneously. The carefully-considered interlinking of narratives, breathtaking performances and complimentary artistic direction have combined to create one of those rare films which floored me on first viewing, and one which I hope will be firmly cemented in the collective consciousness of filmgoers and new directors as a benchmark for cinematic creativity.