Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is both beautiful and terrifying. Fashion designer Ford’s second foray into directing (his debut, A Single Man, came out in 2009), this film stays with you long after the lights have gone up and you are home in bed. I still can’t get the image of a certain red velvet couch and two nudes laying across it out of my head. While Nocturnal Animals is not a horror film, it’s a dark, chilling thriller, and I spent most of the film shaking. Literally.
Adapted from Tony and Susan, a 1993 novel by Austin Wright, the film tells a classic story within a story—in this case, a book within a film. It is the book’s narrative that most unnerves. Amy Adams plays Susan, a sleek art gallery owner with all red lips and perfect blowouts and designer pumps clicking on white marble floors.
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But we sense early on that she feels her upscale Los Angeles life with its cocktail parties, modernist manses, and minimalist décor, is shallow, and her relationship with her handsome husband Walker (Armie Hammer) is strained and unfulfilling. Here, by the way, Ford seems to playfully mock the L.A. art scene with its over-the-top performance pieces and earnest search for meaning—even poking some fun at high fashion and cosmetic surgery. But I digress.
One day, Susan gets a manuscript in the mail from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal)—a writer whose heart she broke some 20 years earlier. It’s a novel he has written and dedicated to her. As Susan reads Edward’s novel, the film switches to portray what she is imagining, so we the audience experience that story as well, and it is not pretty. In fact, it is a seriously brutal thriller akin to Cold Blood or Helter Skelter.
Susan envisions Edward as the protagonist Tony (who is hence also played by Gyllenhaal), a mild mannered family man on a road trip with his wife (played by Isla Fisher) and their teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). While on a remote stretch of Texas highway, they are run off the road and terrorized by a gang of sociopathic thugs, lead by Aaron Taylor Johnson as Ray. Ray’s vacant, emotionless eyes speak volumes. Rarely has a film assailant without a gun felt so terrifying.
Of course, there is no cell service and the encounter turns horrific—eventually leading Edward to seek revenge with the help of a jaded sheriff (the fantastically dry Michael Shannon). It is the stark realism of the book’s story about pure evil that might most surprise Ford fans. He portrays the seedy Texan town and its inhabitants with the same exacting skill with which he paints the film’s main story line and Susan’s lush L.A life, nailing every detail. The deserted shacks in an unforgiving desert, the sick, low-life hoodlums out for a thrill, the weary, weathered sheriff tired of justice not prevailing, the protagonist Tony, sick with guilt, hate and desperation—you can almost smell the blood and sweat.
The film proceeds to move back and forth between the novel and Susan’s life, including flashbacks of her time with Edward when they were young and idealistic, and later to their arguments. There are also flashbacks with an excellent Laura Linney as Susan’s mother, a cocktail-drinking, pearl-wearing judgmental ex-debutant whom Susan never wanted to turn out like, but fears she has.
The book has jolted Susan out of her comfortable yet vacuous life and into thinking about the past (and the present), precisely what the spurned Edward must have wanted. Ford expertly connects the two stories and at one point you feel as if Susan is going mad—as she begins to see scenes from the novel in some of the contemporary art pieces she is surrounded by.
Nocturnal Animals is touted as a revenge tale, but it’s hard to see what revenge Edward truly gets, other than regaining Susan’s attention, unsettling her, and then standing her up. His alter ego Tony is the one who enacts real revenge—and it’s against transgressions much more vicious than breaking a heart. Not that being dumped isn’t painful, but I found it hard to compare that hurt to the devastation caused by the grisly crimes committed in Edward’s novel.
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Of course, it’s all very symbolic—with death, love, art, betrayal, and revenge seamlessly intersecting and crisscrossing on every level, resulting in two distinct tales about hollow, gut-wrenching ache. Plan to have a drink (or two) after this one. If you’re located in New York or Los Angeles, this flick is already playing in select theaters. Otherwise, look out for nationwide expansions on Nov. 23 and Dec. 9.