After starting his movie directorial career in 2009 with the acclaimed A Single Man (steering Colin Firth to an Oscar nomination), Tom Ford has taken his time before returning with his engrossing second film Nocturnal Animals. Thankfully, it’s been worth the wait.
Adapted by Ford from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony And Susan, the story begins when disillusioned art curator Susan (Amy Adams) receives her ex-husband Edward Sheffield’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) novel, which he has dedicated to her. Susan is left confused: she’s had no contact with Edward in decades, for reasons that aren’t initially revealed. Why, then, would he dedicate the book to her?
It sets in a motion a movie that has three different threads running through it: we see Susan’s unfulfilled life now with a disinterested husband (Armie Hammer), her and Edward’s relationship and how it fell apart, and the retelling of Edward’s novel.
As Susan starts reading the book we are told the story, with Gyllenhaal as Tony Hastings, a man whose life is torn apart after a violent and terrifying event when he and his wife and daughter are confronted by three men on a desolate road. The scenes on that road are disturbing and gripping, acted incredibly well, with an especially chilling turn from Aaron Taylor-Johnson who really shines in an immensely dark role.
What happens that night leads Tony to (the always excellent) Michael Shannon’s police detective Bobby Andes, a dying man who wants ensure his last case ends in justice for the victims, by any means. To say anymore would diminish the powerful and harrowing scenes, which are extraordinarily opposed to the shallow world that Susan lives in.
After every shocking turn, we are taken back to see Susan reading the book and breathing heavily (to the point where it became slightly comical). Some of the symbolism in the film is unsubtle, though. The package that the book arrives in gives Susan a paper cut as she opens it, for instance, and then a log falls off the fire and shocks Susan after a distressing moment in the text. There are a few other moments like that, and it makes the transitions from Tony’s ordeal back to Susan a bit clunky. The switch back to Susan’s life made me yearn for her to get back to reading the book, but it must be said that the affect that the novel has on Susan is well portrayed by Adams who in some respects hasn’t got very much to do – she’s reading for a lot of the time – especially compared to Gyllenhaal (whose own performance is worthy of award chatter in itself).
The flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s relationship excellently portray the difference in the former over the years; from a person who wants to love and support someone and leave her privileged life behind to someone who discovers that comfort and wealth matter to her. Gyllenhaal plays Edward with the same sweetness as he portrays Tony, albeit in very different circumstances. Details matter, too. Every supporting role (however small) is well cast and it seems that every character is fully formed; it feels as though their lives are continuing even without the camera on them. Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough and Jena Malone are all memorable, even if they only appear in one scene each.
To say that globally renowned fashion designer Tom Ford’s directional method is stylish is stating the obvious, but there’s no other word for it. Every shot is lush, every close up rich and meaningful. Everything has been pored over and the design and photography is sumptuous.
Nocturnal Animals will stay with you – it really is unlike anything I’ve seen in a while. It is an assault on the senses, one moment beautiful and the next devastating. It took me a few days to decide whether I loved it or hated it… I’ve settled on love.
Nocturnal Animals is in UK cinemas from November 4th.