Weaving stories within stories within pretty pictures, Tom Ford’s ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is an immaculately constructed cinematic contraption that just might be a little empty inside. Like the fashion designer-turned-director’s previous feature, ‘A Single Man‘, the aesthetic qualities of the film are designed down to the tiniest detail, but emotions run cold and humanity remains distant.
This is clearly a choice by a filmmaker with a vision, just one that will likely alienate as many viewers as it enthralls. It’s a nasty and cynical little movie that makes a blunt point and lets viewers wander out of the theater feeling gross and bitter. It’s perhaps not everyone’s ideal Saturday night, but might be a good one for some.
The movie unfolds over three plot lines. The first involves Susan (Amy Adams), a bored art gallery owner wed to a dull and spectacularly wealthy businessman (Armie Hammer). She receives a book from a former flame named Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) and begins reading it while her hubby is away as a means of escaping from her dull life. That story is about a weak man named Tony (Gyllenhaal, again) whose wife and daughter are kidnapped and killed on the side of the road by a gang of rowdy rednecks . The setup moves Susan so much that she begins having flashbacks to her love affair with Edward that was cut short when her wealthy mother insisted the relationship end for something more stable. As Susan reflects on her sad life and regret, the Cormac McCarthy-lite novel turns even darker. Tony meets up with a gruff Texas detective (Michael Shannon), whose ideas of justice are a little more old-fashioned than the stuffy, buttoned-up law.
First things first, the film looks stunning. That was obviously Tom Ford’s primary interest in the project and in filmmaking in general. Everything is rigidly designed with an almost fetishistic attention to detail. The minimalist stark architecture and ludicrously expensive clothing of Susan’s wealthy world are almost oppressive in their luxury. Even the cinematography is composed with an OCD sense of detail. The style is equally controlled and crafted in the other stories, but not nearly as oppressive. The flashback love story has a certain softness to it, while the Texas yarn comes covered in filth, grime and dirt as carefully arranged as any of the fancy design work elsewhere. The whole movie is built on reflections, doubles and contrasts that are baked in visually, but swoop out into the narrative.
Gyllenhaal may technically play two roles, but he’s clearly the same person, a warm and passionate soul whose big heart is too often confused for weakness. The novel-within-the-film has a sense of emotional autobiography that Gyllenhall spreads equally between his characters. Adams also has a double in the novel, amusingly played by Isla Fisher, who is often confused for Adams in real life. The fact that Adams’ character in film can’t see herself exactly in the novel feeds into Ford’s goals. Adams is of course excellent, coldly controlled with a sense of sadness beneath her eyes that the director flaunts endlessly.
None of the characters in the “real world” of the film behave particularly naturalistically, but the boys within the Texas story are given a bigger leash to cut loose. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is nearly unrecognizable as a redneck monster and relishes every second of screen time. Ford lets him chew the scenery with glee. Ditto Michael Shannon, who delivers a tough guy with his typical tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. Shannon is more self-aware than the movie containing him, which is a shame because the film could have used more of that.
The best part of ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is likely the story-within-the-story. It plays with a sleazy charm that Ford proves to have a surprising aptitude for. The Adams/Gyllanhaal narrative is the focus here and it’s coldly painful. This is one of those movies where any moment of warmth and positivity is there purely to make the next dark turn hurt harder. It’s manipulative but well made, and all the disparate threads do indeed dovetail with purpose. Ford isn’t just faffing about; he has a bitter little pill for everyone to swallow that very much stings as intended.
Whether or not viewers will like the poison barb they’ve been fed is a reasonable question. This is ultimately a simple movie despite all the layers of narrative and ornately designed aesthetics. It’s harsh and specific and doesn’t necessarily show the nicest side of artists. Yet for those in a sour mood with a watchful eye, and who don’t mind a little emptiness in their artistry, the film is both moving and compelling. It’s definitely not easy to shake off, even if it’s not necessarily the most pleasant experience to shake.