An unhappy, middle-aged art gallery owner (Amy Adams) stuck in a loveless marriage to a possibly unfaithful husband (Armie Hammer) and faced with dwindling wealth as well as a distant adult daughter is suddenly gifted the early manuscript of her ex-husband’s (Jake Gyllenhall) first novel. A note attached to the cover politely requests she read the novel and get back to him with any notes she might have. The novel, entitled Nocturnal Animals, is a gripping revenge thriller about a man (also played by Gyllenhall) searching for his wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter after being separated from them in an ugly incident with some lecherous locals (led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) on a West Texas highway. As the woman reads the novel, she not only pictures the events in her head but also periodically flashes back to the entirety of her relationship with her ex, from the moment they fell in love to their terrible break-up. She now has immense regret about her part in their break-up, but what does the plot of his novel say about how he might feel about her?
That’s the set-up of Nocturnal Animals, director-writer-producer-fashion designer Tom Ford’s first movie since 2009’s A Single Man, where Colin Firth plays a suicidal, gay college professor drowning in grief over his recently deceased partner of 16 years. Similar to Single Man, Nocturnal Animals ruminates on loneliness and isolation and thumbs it nose at happy endings. Also similar to Single Man, Nocturnal Animals is a feast for the eyes.
Ford’s past as creative director for Gucci and Saint Laurent prior to starting his own fashion label not only ensures his movies always have the most breathtaking costumes, but also that his fine-tuned eye for visuals transfers perfectly to film directing. Nocturnal Animals thus features multiple gorgeously shot sequences which would have likely looked very different if put together by most other directors. He is particularly clever with where he places his camera – shooting Adams in big spaces from afar to show her isolation and then doing the same with Jake’s character once he’s separated from his wife and daughter in the desert.
There is a hollowness to all of this beauty, though, especially since Nocturnal Animals is ultimately a rather cold story about a wealthy art maven in the midst of an existential crisis reading a book which may or may not be a thinly veiled fuck you letter from her ex. In Ford’s hands, the story is certainly intriguingly constructed, but it’s closer to sitcom than it might realize, like the Friends episode where Monica thinks her new boyfriend’s poem “The Empty Vase” is about her.
In an interview with AwardsDaily, Ford was asked what he wants people to take away from Nocturnal Animals. His answer: “I want people to think about the people in their lives. The most important thing is to find people in your life who mean something to you and not to let them go. This is a story about what can happen to your life when you do let those people out of your life.”
That story is told through the twin narratives of Amy Adams realizing she sacrificed love for creature comforts and may never get that love back and Jake Gyllenhall, as the fictional protagonist of his own novel, having his love more or less literally torn away from him and what becomes of him as a result. However, there is an energy imbalance between these two halves, with Gyllenhall’s revenge thriller better grabbing our attention, particularly after the masterfully made and surprisingly long opening sequence on a darkened West Texas highway sets it all in motion.
There’s a compelling Hell or High Water (just with Michael Shannon instead of Jeff Bridges) meets Prisoners movie going on here, and it tends to pull focus. Ford’s script astutely deconstructs this little movie within a movie, psychoanalyzing the author (Adams’ ex) and concluding such a hyper masculine narrative is actually the work of a man responding to years of emasculation.
Yet the film still clearly picks up whenever we leave Adams, either in present or flashback, and returns to the thriller being played out by Gyllenhall, Shannon and Taylor-Johnson. What the plot of this little revenge story tells us about Adams and her ex is the larger point of the film, and the psychoanalysis on display is enough to make you wonder about the private lives of the type of men who create films like Taken. Even so, Nocturnal Animals is still at its most compelling when it’s in West Texas with its own fictional characters.
THE BOTOM LINE
Nocturnal Animals is beautifully shot, impeccably acted, and compelling put together, but its parts are not equal and emotions excessively cold to the touch.
NEITHER HERE NOR THERE
Nocturnal Animals will forever earn my praise for casting Isla Fisher to more or less play a different version of her doppelganger Amy Adams. Now if only Tom Ford will repeat this trick with noted dopplegangers Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard in his next movie.