Nocturnal Animals opens with old, naked, obese women in sensual poses,testing the audience’s comfort not even two minutes into the film. Director Tom Ford seems to be critiquing both the contemporary art sensationalism and heteronormative conditioning. Would we be so appalled if these were young 20-something’s?
The controversial piece is part of a show in Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) gallery. Her opening may have done well but she thinks it’s all junk and struggles to find any inspiration in this fake world she lives in. She’s married to an unfaithful husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), and is on the verge of going broke.
Two decades ago, Susan was briefly married to Edward (Jake Gyllenhall), an optimistic writer, but dumped him after his career wasn’t going anywhere. In the mail, Susan receives a manuscript for his current novel, Nocturnal Animals. It’s a horrifying story about a man and his family terrorized on a rural Texas highway. It’s obviously symbolic of Edward and Susan’s failed marriage, but is also material for a thrilling hard boiled western.
The book unspools into its own movie and we watch this mystery unfold. Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhall), his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher), and their daughter, India (Ellie Bamber) are on a trip when they are run off the road by three miscreants. Their leader, Ray (Aaron Taylor Johnson) is a particularly slimy individual who gets off on making this powerless family squirm. After gettingvabducted by the rednecks, Tony’s wife and daughter end up brutally murdered—leaving him desperately seeking revenge. With the help of crusty detective, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), they embark on a journey to find these men and enact justice.
Since Ford started out in fashion, he knows this world all too well and manages to put satirical jabs in with the ridiculous clothes and personalities. With Seamus McGarvey’s stunning cinematography, he’s able to shape the scene like a Nicholas Winding Refn film. The restraint that Ford had in his first film, A Single Man, is completely gone in Nocturnal Animals. While that does make for some creative moments, it also causes him to lose grip on the story. While Ford tries to connect both storylines together, it just feels like there are two different movies going on. The hard boiled western was the most captivating but it was only used to fuel Adams’ story. The glitzy LA art scene added nothing to the film except for forced symbolism and a (much needed) breather from the other story. By making the symbolism more obvious (there’s literally a painting in her gallery that says “Revenge”), Ford makes the film more satirical and campy than serious.
It’s no mystery that this was obviously an Oscar campaign for Gyllenhaal after his Oscar snub for Nightcrawler. He continously proves that he’s a force to be reckoned with whether it’s as a grief stricken father or a sensitive writer. He’s able to tap into these emotions so naturally and keeps it consistent. It also helps that he has the wonderful Shannon to help bring out these feelings.
Another actor to note is Johnson. We mainly know him from the likes of Kickass and Godzilla but have rarely seen him in a dramatic role. Johnson took charismatic and menacing to a whole new level and proved that he has the chops for Oscar roles. Even though he will surely be overshadowed by Gyllenhaal and Shannon, there’s no doubt that Johnson’s name will be coming up again in future Oscar seasons.
It’s hard to determine whether Ford has created an complex look at failure or just pretentious garbage.He starts out strongly but loses the message along the way. And with the abrupt endings for both stories, we are left wondering what that message was supposed to be. Was Tony/Edward the victim, or is this another example of toxic masculinity luring over women’s minds?