For his second, full-length feature film, Nocturnal Animals (Focus/Cinedigm), gay fashion designer turned screenwriter/filmmaker Tom Ford has once again chosen to adapt a novel (Tony and Susan by Austin Wright) for the big screen. His first film, the Oscar-nominated 2009 adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, was, in a word, breathtaking. Ford’s eye for detail made the film stunning to view.
Ford put that skill of his to good use again in Nocturnal Animals, beginning with the shocking opening credit sequence featuring naked, obese women dancing. This segment is actually part of the film’s first scene, a gallery opening organized by curator Susan (Amy Adams). Susan, at an earlier time in her life, had planned to be an artist, but simply lacked the passion.
Now, the home she shares with her ridiculously hot second husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) is full of other people’s artwork, as are the walls of her gallery. All is not as it seems in their household. Hutton’s business is in trouble and their marriage is coming apart at the seams.
Meanwhile, Susan’s first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a novelist with whom she hasn’t been in contact for almost 20 years, sends her his new manuscript titled Nocturnal Animals. The book is dedicated to Susan and the title is a nickname that Edward used to call her because of her strange sleeping habits.
With Hutton is away on what he says is a business trip, Susan starts reading Edward’s manuscript. At this point, Nocturnal Animals becomes a movie within a movie as the characters come to life while she reads. Tony (Gyllenhaal, again), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) head out on a road trip on a West Texas interstate. While they are traveling, they are harassed by three rednecks – Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Lou (Karl Glusman) and Turk (Robert Aramayo) – resulting in a brutal assault on Tony, and the rape and murder of Laura and India.
Susan’s reaction to the book is visceral, but she can’t put it down. Through a series of flashbacks, the story of Susan and Edward’s relationship is woven into the fabric of the film. Running parallel is Tony’s search for justice for the loss of his wife and daughter. Teaming up with a tough detective Bobby (Michael Shannon), Tony is presented with the opportunity to avenge the deaths of his beloved family members.
There’s a lot to keep track of in Nocturnal Animals, with the way it juggles the present, the past and characters in Edward’s novel, but Ford does a good job of not distracting us too much, especially with the brutal violence. The ending is sure to anger some viewers, open-ended as it is. Still, the lead actors – Adams, Gyllenhall and Shannon – all turn in admirable performances. There are also noteworthy cameos by Michael Sheen (as Sally’s gay friend Carlos), Andrea Riseborough (as Carlos’ wife Alessia) and Laura Linney (as Sally’s disapproving mother Anne).