I thought Tom Ford only made suits? Well, it seems the fashion icon can make a wicked movie too. Nocturnal Animals, Ford’s second film after 2009’s A Single Man, is a damn masterpiece of a thriller.
With an intriguing storytelling structure that features a story within a story and well-timed flashbacks, Nocturnal Animals revolves around the character Susan Morrow (played by Amy Adams), an art gallery owner who receives a novel manuscript dedicated to her entitled “Nocturnal Animals” from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Susan seemingly has the perfect life, living in a luxury mansion in LA, mixing with the sophisticated crowd and married to the dashing Hutton (Armie Hammer), and yet she feels rather empty. When she reads the manuscript, we are transported into the world of the novel, in which Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife (Aussie Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber) are on a road trip through Texas when they encounter a group of troublemakers led by Ray Marcus (played by an unrecognisable Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
The film thus jumps back and forth between the real world and the fictional world, and as Susan begins to ponder the imagery and parallels in the manuscript — as well as Edward’s intentions in sending the novel to her — she also begins to have flashbacks that reveal why their marriage collapsed in the first place. It’s a rather complex narrative structure that somehow works thanks to Ford’s brilliant script and storytelling. What I found most amazing about it is that the impact of the story in the fictional world was never muted or lessened by the fact that we know it’s just a novel. To the contrary, it almost felt more real than the real world, which had a hollow, surreal edge to it.
In any case, Nocturnal Animals is a fantastically controlled piece of cinema. You could tell Ford knew exactly what he wanted and what he was doing, from the portrayal of the characters to the costumes to the beautiful cinematography of the Texan landscape and the parallel images in the two worlds. The tension in the fictional world is incredibly crafted and is one of the most harrowing and devastating cinematic ordeals I’ve ever sat through. It was an absolute gut punch that had me wondering what I would do in the same situation and has been haunting me even days after watching the movie.
Much of the credit should go to Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s performance as Ray Marcus. To be honest, I couldn’t even tell it was him until nearly the very end of the film. From Kick-Ass to Savages to Godzilla to Avengers: Age of Ultron to now, he has proven himself to be one of the best chameleons of this generation, and it’s a travesty he was overlooked for Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (though he did win a Golden Globe). Instead, the only Academy Award nomination Nocturnal Animals garnered was for Michael Shannon, who plays a detective in the fictional world. Yes, he’s very good in it, but I don’t think Shannon was any more deserving of a nomination than Adams or Gyllenhaal, both of whom delivered excellent and nuanced performances.
There are 9 films nominated for Best Picture this year (out of a possible 10), and I think it’s a shame Nocturnal Animals isn’t part of that list. Apart from a narrative that expertly weaves multilayered stories together, edge-of-your-seat tension, and having a distinct visual flair and powerful performances, I also love how the film leaves a lot of room for interpretation all the way through to the end, which really makes you think about everything you’ve watched and what it could mean. It could have been so easy for Nocturnal Animals to fall into pretentious arty-farty territory, but what we ended up with instead was undoubtedly one of the best films of the year.
5 stars out of 5