Based on the novel Tony & Susan (1993) by Austin Wright, and following A Single Man (2009), the long anticipated Nocturnal Animals marks not only the second entry in Tom Ford’s filmography, but another instalment of his brand of meticulously crafted appearance and a much more playful venture in storytelling.
Focusing on an art gallery owner, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), as she simultaneously struggles to read and struggles to put down a manuscript sent to her by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Becoming increasingly unable to separate its fictitious plot of violence, suffering, and revenge from the reality of their relationship, Susan is forced to contemplate and re-live her past mistakes.
Essentially undergoing a three-part narrative; with elements of the present, past, and fictitious weaving themselves together throughout, the film is an exploration of the areas that lie between love and cruelty, revenge and redemption, and fiction and reality. These narrative strands are set against each other by way of different visual styles, with beautiful contrasts in their uses of colour and composition—as well as stunning cinematography from Seamus McGarvey that perfectly captures both the intimacy and claustrophobia of Los Angeles and the expansiveness of Western Texas.
Alternating between Susan’s day-to-day life and her complete immersion into the manuscript as she reads, the film becomes an intricate balancing act between the brutal and beautiful, dramatic and banal, and the poignant and confusing. However, for all of its juxtapositions, what lies at the forefront of Nocturnal Animals is the similarities of its primary locations in terms of their sterility. Masses of steel and a seemingly never-ending supply of wide angled traffic footage in Los Angeles make way for the isolation and savage conditions of Western Texas’ beautiful vistas: with each locale becoming increasingly uncompromising and anxiety ridden.
However, with such meticulous design and impeccable editing, the multiple strands of narrative pale in comparison. Whilst the pinnacle of the film—a sequence from the novel in which Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are run off the road by local troublemakers Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Lou (Karl Glusman) and Turk (Robert Aramayo)—evokes a real sense of palpable terror, the film is left in a lulled sense of disarray in its wake. The stellar performances become flatter as the film continues; due to its increasingly pointed symbolism and the pseudo-morality play atmosphere that creeps in with Ford’s detailing of Susan’s retrospective and incessant foreshadowing through these sections.
Even the cutting between Susan’s imaginings of the novel and her consequent reactions becomes tedious by the end of the film; with the initially clever sound bridges ultimately seeming overdone at best, and sloppy at worst. It’s precisely these attempts to conflate the notions of reality and fiction within Nocturnal Animals that cause problems for its characters, as their overall intentions become just as muddied as the rest of the film’s many juxtapositions.
Despite a multitude of stellar performances (particularly from Amy Adams and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), many of the characters fade into thinly veiled stereotypes as the narrative progresses. Alongside this, Ford’s attempts at including humour—presumably with the intention of comic relief—fall flat in their distinct contrast with the film’s overall tone of gloom and terror. It’s especially jarring when characters like Susan, regardless of her insomniac and depressive tendencies, are expected to deliver the aforementioned humour without appearing uncharacteristic in doing so.
All in all, Nocturnal Animals is a beautiful film that explores the intersections and contradictions that arise when multiple perspectives on events from the past are presented. However, with a second half that undermines its initial white-knuckle intensity and borders on tedious in its overt metaphors, its finale is accompanied by a feeling of underwhelming indifference.