Nocturnal Animals is ambition and ambiguity with Tom Ford style

Nocturnal Animals is a lot of things.

No, really, it’s a lot of things. Possibly one of the most difficult films to grapple with of the year, Tom Ford’s second directorial feature is a densely layered meditation on art, the people who make it, and how we engage with it. I’ve had a day and a break in the middle of the film brought on by a tornado and I’m still entirely not sure what I think of it. It seems to demand to be pulled apart and reward examination, but seems to keep its audience at just the distance to make diving in difficult.

Based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, Nocturnal Animals is two stories. (After a bizarre gif-able art intro that needs to be seen to be believed) We’re introduced to Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner afflicted by insomnia and disaffected with her life. A husband (Armie Hammer) that doesn’t care and a job that doesn’t seem to mean much to her anymore.

Susan receives a novel from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). The novel entitled Nocturnal Animals is a violent revenge tale about a man named Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose family is taken from him by a West Texas psycho named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The novel, which we see play out, engrosses Susan and pulls her back through her history with Edward and why he might send her that novel now.

There’s something I really have to admire about what Tom Ford does here with his actors. He has somewhat of a pre-method sensibility with them, and I think about this specifically in conjunction with Gyllenhaal.

The past few years have been a minor renaissance for Gyllenhaal, letting him turn in a string of really strong and deeply-worn performances. But a lot of them have involved method-acting physicality. You know, losing a whole bunch of weight or getting a ton of tattoos or stuff like that. Letting the weirdness of the way he looks act as a crutch and an avenue into the character.

But with Ford at the helm, Gyllenhaal looks better than he ever has. He’s in shape, well-groomed, and dressed well no matter what. Ford goes to the Classical Hollywood thing where these are movies largely composed of beautiful people no matter what they’re doing. It’s taking away the acting and method crutches and forcing Gyllenhaal to well…act.

And that’s what Ford does with everybody. He does extraordinary work with his actors and I think much of it comes down to how much he strips away a lot of crutch techniques and forces them to really go for it. Ford knows how to cast and knows how to push his actors against each other. His background seems to have given him a unique ability to know what to get out of his actors and how the camera can and should capture them. Nocturnal Animals has a rare sort of glamour to very difficult performances.

In fact, in general, Nocturnal Animals is bathed in that rare sort of glamour. This is an immersive and gorgeous film thanks to Ford and the eye of cinematographer extraordinaire Seamus McGarvey. Adams’ world of icy ennui is sufficiently alien and foreboding and the Nocturnal Animals novel is a sweat-soaked and visibly hot Hell, yet both fit together clearly, we can see the connection. There’s something beautiful in both worlds, and something terrifying.

Like, let’s hope Ford never makes a horror film, because his sense of atmosphere and tension is perhaps this film’s most potent aspect. Though, to be fair, there is to some degree a horror to this film.

But it’s the horror of what art can reveal about us. We see Nocturnal Animals (the novel) through Adams’ eyes. She sees Tony as Edward and Tony’s wife and child as look-a-likes of her and her daughter (Seriously, one of the smarter castings of Isla Fisher). She sees the novel encroach into her life, the characters pop into her real world momentarily. She thinks of the unforgivable things she had done and can’t help but see her own penance or punishment in it. It’s art that hits home and the instincts of the male creative impulse to put themselves constantly into the work.

I can’t help but recognize that, seeing Edward try his best to relive and figure out his past through creativity, work it out. I’ve done that. I’m doing that now.

If I’m wandering slowly through this film, it’s because it’s a film that invites it. It’s intensely ambiguous and gives so little to hook onto, but kind of in the best way. It demands an active and almost literary engagement, it makes me think of one of those books you get recommended by someone you’re dating and feel a little embarrassed that you don’t fully understand.

But I’m glad I saw it and I’m glad to see this one sitting with me more and more. Besides all there is to think about, Tom Ford’s craft and the incredible performances (I didn’t even mention Michael Shannon, who plays the Jim Thompson anti-hero he was always meant to) is enough of a base pleasure to help you try to figure out the tangled knot of this film.

Grade: A-

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