If all fashion designers made films as good as Nocturnal Animals, I would be very pleased. However, thankfully very few fashion designers actually think to step behind the camera. Tom Ford is one of the few exceptions (if not the only one), and while I can’t say I’m too aware of his work as a fashion designer or much about his previous career (I do know a Tom that used to drive a Ford, if that counts), but it is clear through his debut film A Single Man, and his follow-up to that film (coming only seven years later – what took him so long?), it is that Ford is a very talented filmmaker and someone with a unique vision, and while Nocturnal Animals may lack the heartbreaking spark that A Single Man had in abundance, it is still a pretty impressive cinematic achievement, coming from someone who isn’t entirely inexperienced, but isn’t exactly a cinematic maestro quite yet.
Nocturnal Animals is a layered film – quite literally. The encompassing story is that of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an art curator and owner of a high-end gallery who receives a gift from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), a novelist who has written a book entitled Nocturnal Animals, referring to a nickname he had for his ex-wife when they were still a young and struggling artistic couple. The book is centered around Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal), a normal man going on a trip with his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber), but stumble upon a group of young criminals, led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who terrorize the family and end up doing some very bad things to Laura and India, leaving Tony to try and take revenge in his own way, and assisted by unconventional but dedicated police detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), the pair hunt down these criminals and try and bring them to justice, in any way possible. The film shifts between the real world and the world of the novel, and we see the connections between Susan’s own life (told mostly through flashback), and the horrific and surreal world of the novel, and there is a burning question – why is it that the real world sometimes feels as absurd and surreal as the fictional worlds we are introduced to?
There is something very clear about the way Tom Ford made Nocturnal Animals – he was clearly inspired by the works of other filmmakers, and it shows that he definitely did his homework in finding filmmakers and films that could inspire the story and visual aesthetic of Nocturnal Animals, and while that can sometimes make an unoriginal, dour film, in Nocturnal Animals it works, because Ford chooses from a range of eclectic directors and uses elements of their work to convey the story. Of course, one can’t be sure of whether or not Ford actually was inspired by any other filmmaker, or specific film, but there are some very interesting parallels between Nocturnal Animals and other films. The most notable is the similarities between this film and the films of David Lynch in terms of the surreal and absurd darkness of this film – it seems like a comedy without any humour.
Another filmmaker I could see shining through in this film was Luis Buñuel, as Nocturnal Animals very similarly satirizes the lives of the rich and famous, just like Buñuel managed to achieve in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. However, the filmmaker that I saw the most influence in Nocturnal Animals was Terrence Malick – it almost seemed to me that Ford was trying to make a Terrence Malick film – both in the artistic and trendy “real world” story (that can be seen in films like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups), and the dusty, rural but still very cerebral (and often terrifying) segments of the film taking place in the fictional world of the film. Essentially, Nocturnal Animals transcends different styles and sub-genres, but rather than being messy and incoherent as a film like this could be, it actually was pretty self-assured and motivated in its direction. I think Tom Ford holds great potential as a filmmaker, even if I’m apprehensive to consider him a proper filmmaker right at this moment.
Now onto the performances – Nocturnal Animals has two types of performers – the central quartet that take up the core of the film, and the abundant cameos and smaller supporting performances from some very esteemed and respected actors and actresses. Nocturnal Animals is worth seeing for both. I’d like to talk about the latter category first. Nocturnal Animals manages to draw in quite a few famous performers for very small roles – and sometimes this work, but it also occasionally didn’t. Armie Hammer has the biggest of these secondary supporting roles, and while he isn’t given much to do, he isn’t necessarily bad or wasted. Laura Linney has one scene in this film, playing the mother of Adams’ character, and even though her scene is very brief, she manages to give a very memorable performance. However, with performers like Andrea Riseborough (an up-and-coming young actress who was in Birdman, so that automatically gives her credibility) and Michael Sheen, they just seem wasted – they appear for a single scene and just don’t develop into anything. I can think of quite a few characters in this film that I could do without (and for some reason, Zawe Ashton seems to forget how to act in her single scene). No one does entitled brat like Jena Malone, and I think she can make a career out of playing these kinds of nasty characters that are more annoying than they are villainous.
In terms of the bigger roles, you can’t really go wrong with a cast like this. Amy Adams is one of the most hardworking movie stars today, and even if I felt she was far superior in Arrival, I thought Nocturnal Animals offered her an interesting opportunity. Granted, the majority of this film is composed of Adams silently reading and reacting to the shocking story, but she shows how she is able to give a remarkable performance without even saying a word at some points. Jake Gyllenhaal is also an incredible actor, and he does amazing work here in dual roles as Edward Sheffield and Tony Hastings, making each of them distinctive characters, but similar enough to draw parallels between the two parts of the film. Adams and Gyllenhaal are relatively young but have already acquired incredible careers and they will most certainly be icons of this current age of Hollywood in a few decades. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is almost completely unrecognizable here, and he manages to pull of this performance flawlessly, creating a terrifying and very complex villain that scares the characters in the film and the audience watching.
Michael Shannon may just be the best actor working today – who else can give performances in psychological thrillers (Nocturnal Animals, Complete Unknown, Wolves), comedies (Elvis & Nixon), romantic dramas (Loving, Frank & Lola), science fiction (Midnight Special), westerns (Poor Boy) – all in one year? Added to that, Shannon appeared in the worst film of the year (I don’t even need to mention what that was). If there was any doubt that Shannon is talented, Nocturnal Animals gives him the opportunity to prove himself as someone who brings inherent weirdness and quirky humour to any role. As a dedicated detective, Shannon takes a familiar trope and turns it into something memorable. He may not give the showiest performance in the film, but he certainly gives one that lingers long afterwards. Shannon is just an acting genius and deserves to be lauded as the incredible actor as he is – and he seems to be someone who is destined to join the pantheon of actors who are just undeniably strange, alongside such luminaries as Klaus Kinski and Timothy Carey (both of which would be proud of Shannon’s career).
Nocturnal Animals is a great film. It may have some flaws, but the assured direction, memorable performance, fast-paced story and innovative way of filmmaking more than make up for the fact that this film seems amateurish in places. It is a great neo-noir thriller, and it has the layers to make it a complex and cerebral film, but also the entertainment value to make it an accessible film. Nocturnal Animals is a really quaint film that does suffer from some bad decisions, but as a whole, it is still pretty good for what it is.