Nocturnal Animals begins with one of the weirdest opening-credits sequences in the history of the movies: a fat, flabby naked woman dances on a stage while waving a banner. It’s completely out-of-the-blue, utterly absurd…and yet, at the same time, oddly disturbing, as if the image is saying something we’d really rather not hear. In a nutshell, that feeling of unbelieving disquiet captures exactly how you’ll feel after watching the entirety of this new Tom Ford movie. It’s all technically just “fiction,” but it’ll still leave you deeply unsettled with its haunting, beautiful, and absolutely riveting story. And when you add a series of extremely strong performances, you’ve got what’s undeniably one of the best movies of the year.
To be precise, this film is actually more like a “two in one.” (Penny pinchers, rejoice.) In the bigger frame lies the story of Susan Hutton (Amy Adams), a middle-aged art gallery curator frustrated with her career and the infidelity of her husband of 20 years. One day, she receives a package from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), a soon-to-be-published novel dedicated, of all people, to her. Said novel provides the base for a “movie within a movie,” a drama about a man named Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) who finds himself stranded in the middle of rural western Texas after a band of thugs kidnap, rape, and murder his wife and daughter. As Susan follows the unfolding of this storyline, which reflects the emotions Edward felt when Susan left him, she can’t help but also start looking back on the ups and downs of their marriage – the things they did right, but more importantly, the choices she made that were so undeniably wrong.
This is only the second movie Ford has ever made; aside from 2009’s A Single Man, he’s otherwise best known for his successful career in the fashion industry. Here, that background makes itself known from the get-go: “stylish” doesn’t even begin to describe how amazingly elegant this movie is. The set design, fake and ostentatious in Susan’s art gallery, vast and vaguely surreal in the Texas desert, dark and spooky in crime scenes, changes in perfect lockstep with the shifting moods of the plot. The camerawork is spectacular, whether it’s the way it blends close-ups and long shots or how it uses shadows to create such an intense atmosphere of fear and insecurity. And the way Ford splices together images from the two storylines – in one of the most memorable moments, a gruesome shot of Tony’s wife and daughter in a dead embrace is immediately followed by one of Susan’s daughter and her boyfriend in the exact same pose – eerily shows the scary analogies between two worlds that otherwise wouldn’t appear to have anything in common. Altogether, the whole film comes together like a photography exhibition in motion, where every frame contains visual intricacies a single viewing can only begin to uncover.
Of course, said intricacies are all there to serve the needs of the story, which, beyond its many thrills, is a blistering exposé of artificiality, a no-holds-barred look at how an existence defined by overdone costumes, pretentious art exhibits, and cool-looking houses does nothing to nourish the emotional life behind them. For Susan and us in turn, the heartbreaking story of Tony’s trials, with its painfully raw feelings, goes beyond mere gripping fiction. With the contrasts it sets between its genuine grief and the emptiness of Susan’s “real world,” it strikes directly at our lives with a jolting, impressive statement on the authenticity a person loses always trying to put on a show of appearances for others. 20 years back, that show of appearances took away the love of Edward’s life; only now in Tony’s story does the pent-up agony of those two decades finally make itself known, and the now-liberated force of its passion will leave you trembling just as much as it does Susan. If that sounds suspiciously like a recipe for melodramatic bull, it only goes to show just how desensitized day-to-day life has made us to pure emotion.
Finally, you can’t talk about this movie without noting that the lead actors do some of their best work ever. Adams delivers an unadorned and moving interpretation of a woman who realizes too late how much she gave up in pursuit of a fleeting ideal. Her every sigh and grimace carry a delicate sense of vulnerability and despair, a desire to go after something she knows she can never really get back. Gyllenhaal builds on the grit and zeal he displayed two years ago in the underrated Nightcrawler. The two roles he tackles – the vengeful husband and the sensitive young lover – require a large emotional range, but he manages to cover it with such fiery spirit that he’ll literally have you squirming. And Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are both magnetic in their respective supporting roles as the cowboy sheriff and the unrepentant criminal, polar extremes of good and evil in an emblematic tale of justice. In years past, none of these guys ever got recognized by Oscar (especially Adams, what with five nominations and counting); here’s hoping this will change that for some of them.
It’s now the time of year when Best Pic wannabes hit theaters in the hopes of leaving an impression when Academy members go to the drawing board in January. Perhaps it’s too offbeat and bleak for their tastes, but Nocturnal Animals definitely deserves a spot on their short list. It has gorgeous visuals, a compelling storyline, and spectacular acting, plus an ending that really hits you hard. Many movies can claim to be good entertainment; not nearly as many can claim to be something so exquisitely designed that you want to keep it and look it over again and again. Go see this movie. Now. You won’t regret it in the least.
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Running Time: 115 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Produced by: Tom Ford, Robert Salerno
Directed by: Tom Ford
Written by: Tom Ford
Based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan.
Image of Adams from here.