Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is a nihilistic, gritty, taut, meticulous, gorgeous, wildly problematic film. Yet, for all its faults it has a sense of humor; it even has one about itself. The movie also clocks in under two hours so it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
I saw Nocturnal Animals yesterday and I really haven’t stopped thinking about it. About its narrative structure, the performances, the camera work, Laura Linney, and the toxic masculinity inherent in the film itself.
From the opening credits, a montage of naked middle aged overweight women gyrating sexually while wearing American flag hats and waving sparklers and flags, Ford tells us this film is going to be a bumpy wild ride. Ford’s camera doesn’t shy away from these women either. We see closeups of their stomachs, their back sides, their breasts, and in some cases their surgical scars, but we also see their smiles and laughter.
We soon discover the women are part of an art project in a gallery owned by Susan (Amy Adams). She seems distant and sad even though her gallery is clearly doing well. Upon returning home we discover she has a marriage with Hutton (Armie Hammer) that is on the verge of crumbling.
A package arrives from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). It’s a manuscript of his novel. He’s dedicated it to Susan, telling her without her he couldn’t have written it. He asks her to read it, and if possible meet him for drinks and discuss what she thought of the book.
So up to this point, we have Tom Ford giving us beautiful sad immaculately dressed white people in gorgeously designed empty sparse white people houses. Still, Ford knows how to dress his actors, and he has an eye for screen composition.
But it’s when the movie shifts into first gear, when Susan starts reading the book and we see Edward’s story as envisioned by her is when the movie starts to really hum. The story within a story consists of Tony (Also Jake Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher), and their teenaged daughter India (Ellie Bamber); and the road trip from hell.
Edward’s story is a dark noirish boilerplate revenge tale about a husband and his family who are terrorized one night on a lonely desert road by a group of red neck sociopaths led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). After kidnapping Laura and India, and then forcing Tony to follow, they leave him alone in the desert.
Tony wanders back to civilization and contacts the local authorities. He meets the local sheriff Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). They soon discover Tony’s wife and daughter have been raped and murdered. The two team up to seek justice/revenge for them.
Andes first line “I look into things around these parts.” feels like it was ripped from Bogart’s mouth. Shannon’s Andes is far and away one of the best things about this movie. The way Shannon carries himself as he and Tony walk through the desert, the way he stands as the two confront a naked Ray taking a crap on a toilet outside the door of his trailer, the man is a joy to watch. Shannon says volumes with just a grumble or sideways glance.
The only real competition Shannon has is Laura Linney as Susan’s mom, Anne. Linney, as always, is a delight with her giant Texas hair and her even bigger Texas accent. Anne is at once withering and manipulative while still being honest and brutally loving.
The movie jumps back and forth, sideways and longways between Susan, her imagining the book as she reads it, and flashbacks of her and Edward. The movie while dark and amoralistic relishes in its own existence. The mere fact that Ford has Ilsa Fisher playing a doppelganger version of Amy Adams alone should be a clue how much twisted fun the film is.
Ford and his camera man, the wonderfully named, Seamus McGarvey, seemed to have decided ‘meticulous’ is a style and not just a mere word. They photograph the actors and actresses, like shiny perfect objects of art.
Whether it’s the book by Austin Wright, or Ford’s adaptation of it, the characters seem to talk and act like they were the bastard love children of Douglas Sirk and Fritz Lang. There’s humor and just sheer animosity and meanness in their words and actions.
Nocturnal Animals is a twisted and dark piece of Hollywood pulpy melodramatic trash. I’m not entirely sure what it says about me, but I’m just being honest. I had a blast.