Mysterious, grotesque, and insatiably stylish, Nocturnal Animals pulls us headfirst into the abyss. Tom Ford’s second directorial effort feels like a movie Brian de Palma would make today: Everything’s on the surface, designed to shock and titillate. But that superficial quality—the aesthetic—is where the movie lives.
Los Angeles is the home of junk culture, wealthy gallery owner Susan (played by Amy Adams) says to a friend. She didn’t need to say it out loud. We see the junk in Ford’s aerials of crowded L.A. highways, in a raucous opening sequence with nude obese women dancing in the gallery show. Susan wanders through her cavernous L.A. home, tries to reconnect with her unfeeling second husband (the smarmy Armie Hammer), and emanates glamorous dissatisfaction. In the penultimate scene, Ford lingers over Susan’s makeup routine: she draws her luscious hair across her shoulder, applies bold lipstick then dabs some away. She is on exhibition, just like her art.
We flash back twenty years to her former life with her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). She reads some of his work and tells him that she can’t connect to his stories; to Susan, he’s settling, and not a very ambitious writer. Back in the present, she receives a manuscript proof from Edward: his novel Nocturnal Animals, soon to be published, which he’s dedicated to her. And so she opens the proof and begins to read.
Within the novel, vividly enacted before us in a parallel narrative, Gyllenhaal plays Tony—a surrogate for Edward—whose wife and daughter are abducted by a trio of ruffians on a rural Texas highway late at night. Tony works with a cop played by Michael Shannon to find his family and track down the criminals. It’s a brutal, unsparing story—uncomfortable to watch, and vexing for Susan. Ford parallels Tony’s mounting despair with Susan’s ennui, cutting back and forth to Adams closing the book, soaking into a bath, trying to cleanse herself of what she’s reading.
There’s not much plot in the outer story, beyond Adams looking devastating and devastated. The richer inner story carries the suspense, with an emotionally fraught Gyllenhaal teaming up alongside Shannon’s caustic wit. (Shannon does provide both levity and gravitas; it’s a great scenery-chewing part.) If Susan’s milieu is Tom Ford at his Tom Fordiest, the Texas chapters are Cormac McCarthy on adrenaline. I wouldn’t watch them on their own—that Texas plot feels (deliberately?) cheap and sensational. It can’t be a great novel, can it?
But Edward wants something greater.
The rest of this post contains major spoilers.
Now, Ford can be sloppy, in his casting and screenwriting. The timeline feels messy, for one thing. It’s hard to believe 30-year-old Armie Hammer is old enough to have a college-aged daughter. I didn’t even know who her father was until I checked the credits. The shot where their daughter is introduced mirrors a shot from Edward’s novel, but why should it? It doesn’t make sense in the way that many shots of Susan—reading and absorbing—sync with shots from the novel.
But, after digesting the dueling plots more, I think the last scene does make the movie seem more cohesive by the end. Though it seemed all over the place during, I realized Ford’s tight control over the movie as I watched Edward standing up Susan, completing his well-crafted revenge. This was an emotional journey; plot and logic aren’t too important. Like in A Single Man, he knows how to cut right to our anxieties and our vanity. Through Amy Adams—who is somehow empathetic and vulnerable even at her chilliest—and a panorama of visual and aural stimuli, he creates something highly expressive.
Does it matter if it’s well-plotted or believable? We’re spectators in Tom Ford’s art gallery, and he’s opening up his soul the only way he knows how.