Seven years after the release of A Single Man, Tom Ford has returned to the big screen with Nocturnal Animals, a captivating examination of masculinity and fulfillment. With impeccable visuals, stories within stories, and phenomenal acting, this one seems destined for the Academy Awards.
Amy Adams is Susan, a wealthy gallery owner living in Los Angeles and unhappily married to the handsome Hutton (Armie Hammer). She begins to unravel while reading a manuscript sent to her by her ex-husband about a family accosted on the side of the road by three men while driving through West Texas. As she becomes engrossed in the thriller, we cut between the two stories and uncover more about each realm.
The husband in West Texas, Tony, is played impeccably by Jake Gyllenhaal. Saddled with multiple roles (without giving too much away), Gyllenhaal deftly juggles it all, adjusting his physicality to cleanly delineate between characters and timelines. Tony is a caring father but is confronted by his own limitations when it comes to protecting his wife and daughter. Sure, you always see the Liam Neesons on screen, the men who jump into action to save their loved ones or enact revenge, but Nocturnal Animals asks - what if you couldn't? What if you choked instead? This examination of masculinity, of perceived weakness, runs through the course of the film and is endlessly fascinating. Gyllenhaal plays it all with the right amount of guilt and fear.
Adams is also exceptional as the distant Susan. We glimpse Susan from college through middle-age, as she matures, changes, and loses that slight Texan accent. You can't help but agree when her ex-husband tells her she has "sad eyes" - it's clear that she's restless and unhappy throughout the film. Surrounded by opulent wealth and ridiculous personalities, Adams hots the right balance of confusion and sadness, wondering how she ended up in this materialistic life.
Based on Ford's A Single Man, you might expect Nocturnal Animals to be beautiful but a bit slow. Thankfully, that's only half true. This film is indeed beautiful and polished, taking full advantage of the natural landscapes of Los Angeles and West Texas. Tableaus are constructed and contrasted, linking scenes together in visually stunning ways that leave you impressed at its attention to detail. And thanks to the suspenseful thriller built into the film, it feels anything but slow. Those scenes in particular are tense and suspenseful, proving Ford can handle a quick-moving plot line. As icing on the cake, you have a couple of fantastic cameos from Michael Shannon (as your stereotypical give-no-fucks detective lieutenant), Isla Fisher (in a role I refuse to spoil) and Laura Linney (as Susan's Dallas-rich materialistic mother).
That's not to say Nocturnal Animals is perfect. The opening credits scene is divisive at best and grossly insensitive at worst. For me, it's only acceptable as an outright jab at so-called "edgy" visual artists working today. The story-within-a-story begins out taunt and promising before devolving into a rape revenge storyline we've all seen before that always seems to feel a bit gratuitous when the women raped aren't around to be involved.
That being said, Nocturnal Animals is an engrossing, multi-layered examination of multiple themes. There's so much happening at every level - visually, through dialogue, through the actors - that multiple viewings seem mandatory. In short, Tom Ford has proven that he's quite comfortable in the world of film. Now let's just hope it doesn't take him another seven years for his next one.