The setting is New York City, at some point in the past (though it probably isn’t more than a few years). At what appears to be a fancy restaurant, two people, a man and a woman, are conversing with each other over dinner and drinks. As we find out, both of them are old friends, having grown up together in Hastings, Texas. The man, Edward Sheffield (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), is catching up with Susan Sutton (played by Amy Adams), whom he didn’t realize was also in New York until he ran into her in the street just moments before this dinner. In the midst of their conversation, they reveal to each other that, growing up, both had a crush on each other, but their dreams and ambitions took them on different paths – Edward dreams of being a writer, while Susan dreams of being an artist. Both of them have the glimmer of hope their eyes; that glimmer or spark that you see when someone is really passionate about something they’re doing or something they want to do.
As they look into each other’s eyes, Edward makes a startling admission – he tells Susan that she has “[her] mother’s eyes,” a revelation that Susan adamantly protests. “I am nothing like my mother,” she says, raising her voice slightly. “Sooner or later, everyone becomes their mothers,” Edward replies with a bit of cynicism in his voice. When NOCTURNAL ANIMALS revisits them in its present timeline, Susan, now married to Hutton Morrow (played by Armie Hammer), and wearing a lot more makeup than previous, seems to have settled into what I call “trophy wife mode,” her face constantly expressing a look of unhappiness. When she receives a package from Edward containing a manuscript version of his new book, along with note from Edward wanting to meet up with Susan again, she suddenly takes a keen interest in revisiting this ghost of her past, and begins to read Edward’s book, also titled “Nocturnal Animals.”
Director Tom Ford’s NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, adapted by Ford from the novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright, is an emotional thriller that preys on its audience’s senses from its opening credits to its climax. After the success of his debut effort, A SINGLE MAN, Ford’s sophomore effort is a more ambitious story that feels as much exciting as it does weird. The story itself is woven as a “story within a story;” as Susan reads Edward’s novel, we see that story played out on screen, with Gyllenhaal also playing the protagonist of the novel, Tony Hastings. As key events unfold in the novel’s narrative, the film also follow’s Susan in real time (with a few important flashbacks thrown in) as she becomes enlightened to what has become of her life, while pondering if there’s anything she can do, at this stage, to change course.
The novel at the heart of the film, Edward’s “Nocturnal Animals,” which he has dedicated to Susan, is a revenge tale that is seemingly inspired by the dissolution of his and Susan’s relationship. As the audience progresses through the film itself, similar events in both stories symbolically mimic one another in obvious juxtaposition. While the film’s structure is what makes it so intriguing, it is also what makes it uneven. To that end, it becomes difficult to tell what Ford’s intention is: to create a true arthouse film, or to simply lampoon it.
The first thing that I personally liked about this structure is the attention to detail in its cinematography. Both stories, while paralleling each other to a certain degree, still look and feel unique – Susan’s story is very bland and boring, using very dark colors throughout her scenes (a lot of black, blue, and grey) to portray her equally bland, high society living. In contrast, the “Nocturnal Animals” novel itself is ripe with color, giving it that sense of life, adventure, and suspense that its story is attempting to convey. Both Ford and his cinematographer Seamus McGarvey do a terrific job of making the film’s two stories look and feel like they should be their own film.
Both Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal deliver great, though unnoteworthy, performances. With Adams, I feel that her work in ARRIVAL was a much stronger effort; in this film, she almost looks too complacent, and she both doesn’t evoke the necessary emotion for a particular scene or goes in completely the opposite direction and overdoes it. But there are a few scenes, mostly in the flashbacks, where she does a great job in displaying the struggle between following your dream and deciding to “grow up” and give it up for good. With Gyllenhaal, it’s obvious through his body of work that he truly enjoys films like these, where he feels challenged as a performer. While I did enjoy his performance more overall, it still felt like “more of the same” from him. But I truly do not mean that in a negative light; when “more of the same” means an actor being able to portray two different characters in both a unique and believable way, then it is still a tremendous credit to that actor’s talent. However, I feel that his performances in both NIGHTCRAWLER and ENEMY were superior to this one, but it is still a great effort that viewers should go out of their way to witness. A huge honorable mention goes to Michael Shannon as the detective in the novel charged with helping Tony Hastings obtain a sense of justice.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is as great a sophomore effort as the perceptibly talented Tom Ford can produce, and I’m certainly not the only one to think so, as he was recently nominated in the Best Director category for this film at the Golden Globes. One part a satire of high living, one part revenge tale that would make the Cohen Brothers proud, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is an exhilarating story that examines the costs of both pursuing your dream, and giving up on them. To some audience members, it will appear as an honestly-made arthouse thriller; to the others, it will come off as a parody of one. The great thing about cinema is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other – it can be both! And in the end, I think that was Ford’s intention after all.