Fashion designer Tom Ford made a splash back in 2009 with his transition to feature film making. He directed A Single Man which earned Colin Firth an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. A Single Man is a film I haven’t seen, but have heard good things about. Ford’s work on Nocturnal Animals makes me want to find his previous work. Ford blends gorgeous visuals and fantastic acting in his newest film that is sure to draw some awards attention. He is able construct a film that blends a unique way of story telling while never letting things get out of control. Nocturnal Animals is a well executed and gorgeously shot thriller with a layered story that from its opening credits grabs your attention and never lets go.
The film is directed by the aforementioned Ford from a screenplay he also wrote and stars Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Armie Hammer. The film follows a sophisticated and wealthy artist Susan (Adams) who one day mysteriously receives a manuscript for a book written by her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal). The book is titled Nocturnal Animals and the film weaves between Susan’s present day life and the events that transpire within the novel. Within the novel, a man named Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) comes across a group of criminals (Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo) who take his wife and child. He is helped by a old school lawman (Shannon) as they track down the criminals. The film also explores how Susan and Edward met in the first place.
Sounds complicated? It is. But, Ford does an excellent job balancing three narratives and mixing them seamlessly within the film. Susan is troubled and she is numb. It becomes increasingly obvious the book is a metaphor for their lives together. She continues to read the book and more and more layers are peeled back from the three separate narratives. The novel in itself is a revenge tale of sorts. Everything feels real, and the film slowly unwinds what’s real and what isn’t. It does a terrific job of keeping us guessing and really wondering if this novel is a metaphor or true life story.
The acting in the film is top tier. Amy Adams gives another nuanced and quiet performance. She is a regretful woman who as soon as the manuscript for the novel shows up, she begins to slip into an existential crisis. Her love with Edward is real and genuine. Yet, the lack of success tears them apart. We understand why this novel Edward has written is creating such devastation in her life.
Jake Gyllenhaal is also quite sublime in the film. I can only imagine how hard it is to balance two different roles but he does it flawlessly. As Tony, the character within the novel, he exhibits raw emotion. The novel character is a mild mannered guy, much like Edward, who turns to violent extremes after being pushed. Too often, Edward is considered soft and weak. In a way, Tony is the manifestation of Edward within the novel that the real world, namely Susan and her mother (played by Laura Linney) wants him to be. Yet, Tony comes full circle in the novel and Edward in real life mirrors this towards the end of the film.
The always undervalued Michael Shannon really steals the show here. He plays a detective, Bobby, who has a distinct old school style but fits the story well. Bobby is a cliche character of sorts, yet he never feels cliche. That is mostly due to Shannon’s pure talent. His ability to lose himself in a role is second to none. You never feel like your watching Michael Shannon. And in part, his performance makes us lost in the story of the novel that we are waiting for that next interaction between Bobby and Tony. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is also spectacular in the film. He plays the despicable Ray who is involved in the crime Bobby and Tony investigate. Ray is often uncomfortable to watch on screen but that’s a credit to his ability to transform in this film.
The cinematography in the film is impeccable. Seamus McGarvey, who has shot films such as Anna Karenina and Atonement, both of which he was nominated for an Oscar, is well on his way to a third nomination. McGarvey takes the desolate landscape of West Texas and uses it to accentuate the grim details of the story the film tells. McGarvey shot the film in 35mm film which really accents the desert and gives the film a noir type feel.
The film ultimately does slog a little bit through the middle portion. The brilliance of the narrative within the context of the film is so well done, I was often let down going back to present time. Ford’s themes are often hung out (sometimes literally) in the open and it becomes somewhat pretentious at times. Yet, Ford confidently glides from scene to scene with such grace that transitions are never really felt within the film. The biggest criticism I have of Nocturnal Animals is it’s subtle, albeit noticeable dip into melodrama from time to time. It’s a bit of contradiction to say that, because there aren’t really any scenes in the movie that are forced. But, elements of Gyllenhaal’s performance were uneven and the film does suffer a bit for it.
Nocturnal Animals was a surprise. I didn’t have many expectations or high anticipation as I did with, say, Manchester by The Sea. Perhaps I am better for that. I really enjoyed this film and it won’t be for every type of audience. Simply the opening credits alone may leave a sour taste in some mouths. But, Nocturnal Animals shines in the crowded field of awards worthy cinema over the last few weeks. With a few minor issues I took up with the film, it is a strong and thought provoking story from a former fashion designer. Here’s to hoping Ford won’t take seven years to make his next film.