“What right do I have to not be happy?”
A gorgeous, morbidly comedic mix of No Country For Old Men, The Neon Demon and The NeverEnding Story, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is a visual feast by way of a cerebral mind-fuck. Ford, fashion-designer and filmmaker, makes it clear from the get-go he’s playing with the audience with a beautifully photographed but jarring opening credit sequence tailor-made to make certain audience members laugh nervously. Adapting Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, Ford has created a luxurious-looking exploration of weakness, dissatisfaction and revenges both personal and petty.
Amy Adams is Susan, the owner of a posh gallery as well as a vacant stare. When we first see Adams she’s done-up in dark make-up that clashes with her pale skin, giving her an almost vampiric appearance. Later, after she removes the makeup, we see the fragile being underneath. Susan is married to handsome businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer), who neglects to come to opening night at Susan’s gallery and jets off from LA to NY to be with his mistress.
Susan receives a package in the mail from her ex-husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal). It’s the copy of his latest novel, titled Nocturnal Animals. Feeling lonely and regretful about how she ended their marriage, Susan stretches out on beds and couches and begins to pour over Tony’s tome. This framing device gives way to the real meat of the film, as Tony’s novel unfolds before us in living color. It’s a Cormac McCarthy/Coen Brothers-y tale of ineffectual family man Edward (also played by Gyllenhaal) who sets out on a road trip with his wife (played by Isla Fisher, with the red-headed actress clearly acting as a stand-in for Adams) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). While out on a dark Texas highway, the family runs afoul of three redneck psychos led by the positively snake-like Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, delivering perhaps the first truly good performance in his otherwise spotty career). After an altercation, Edward’s wife and daughter are abducted by the rednecks and Edward is left abandoned out in the darkness.
This is an absolutely harrowing set-up, and Ford keeps the tension at a relentless clip during the lengthy highway sequence. Gyllenhaal plays up his character’s weakness perfectly — frozen by fear, he’s completely helpless to intervene and save his wife and daughter. After the dread-inducing highway sequence ends, Nocturnal Animals lightens up a bit with the introduction of Michael Shannon as a monotone lawman who teams up with Gyllenhaal to find the men who abducted his family. All of the performances in Nocturnal Animals are stellar, particularly Adams, who hides behind large, terribly sad eyes. But the stand-out is Shannon’s Bobby Andes, who doesn’t play by the book but has a sense of justice none-the-less. Moments between Gyllenhaal and Shannon garner huge laughs mostly due to how low-key Shannon plays off of Gyllenhaal’s mania.
While Tony’s novel is playing out, Ford also cuts back to Adams’ Susan as she remembers her relationship with Tony. We see in flashbacks their romantic coming-together — Tony so determined to become a great writer, with Susan at first supportive of his dreams. But Susan’s mother (Laura Linney, in a deliciously devious cameo) warns her that a marriage to Tony won’t end well, as as much as Susan protests, her mother ends up being correct.
Some may find the framing device of Nocturnal Animals to be strange; the blood-soaked tale of Tony’s novel has seemingly little to do with Susan’s boredom. But the character-driven drama at the heart of Nocturnal Animals revolves around the self-loathing its characters possess. One of the frequent flaws pointed out about Tony is his inherent weakness, and he seems to have channelled that weakness into Edward, the main-character of his novel. Just like Tony, Edward was unable to save fight for his marriage. Adams’ Susan, meanwhile, is overcome with regret. She threw Tony away for a life of comfort, and she’s seemingly spent every moment since realizing that comfort isn’t buying her happiness. By employing the framing device, Ford’s film is showing both the cause and the effect of the decisions its characters make. The result is a wildly entertaining, meticulously constructed mix of character drama and dark thriller. The characters in Nocturnal Animals may be unable to find happiness again, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a blast watching them suffer.
Note: a version of this review originally appeared on September 13, 2016