If there’s any doubt that fashion-designer-cum-film-director Tom Ford loves playing the role of provocateur, the opening to his new film, Nocturnal Animals, should cast it out. A series of naked, morbidly obese women, each with a single stylistic flourish like a drum majorette’s hat or a pair of boots, gyrate on screen in super slow motion.
Absolutely nothing is left to the imagination.
Opinions about the sequence range from calling it body shaming to body positive. There’s no context for what is on the screen until the sequence is over. Your relative comfort with bodies that don’t conform to the Hollywood ideal of beauty will play a role in how you react, as well as how you feel about your own body. It’s one of those cinematic moments that tells you more about yourself than the film you’re watching. Ford probably included it just to get a rise out of people. It’s intentionally confrontational in what is a particularly confrontational movie.
Nocturnal Animals is a meditation on gender politics wrapped up in a twisted story-within-a-story of rape, murder, and revenge. By turns it made me exhilarated, nauseated, and mournful. Just like that opening sequence, your reaction to the characters and their actions is a view into your own psyche more than anything else. It’s a nasty bit of storytelling that sticks with you long after you’ve seen it.
This is Ford’s second film. His first, the Oscar nominated A Single Man, announced his arrival on the filmmaking scene as a major talent. Nocturnal Animals validates that assessment. Just like his first movie, Ford not only directed this one, he also produced it and adapted the screenplay from a novel, Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan. Also like A Single Man, Ford teamed up with an extraordinarily talented cinematographer. Seamus McGarvey gives Nocturnal Animals both a sumptuous and desolate look, each a reflection of the complicated and layered story.
We first meet Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner and the personification of that old adage “money can’t buy happiness.” Her latest art exhibit is a hit, but she feels unfulfilled in both her professional and personal lives. Her husband, the wealthy and dashing Hutton, may or may not be having an affair, and he seems uninterested in salvaging their faltering marriage. Susan gets a package from her estranged ex-husband Edward. It’s a proof of his first novel, titled Nocturnal Animals. He includes a note telling Susan that without their time together, he never could have written it, and that they should meet for dinner when he is in town on business.
The bulk of the film details the story-within-a-story as Susan reads Edward’s novel. Interspersed throughout are Susan’s reminiscences of her time with Edward, both the happy early stage of their marriage and the bitter end of it. The novel tells the tale of Tony Hastings, a mild-mannered family man who is driving across the American Southwest with his wife and daughter. A trio of delinquents runs the family off the road in the middle of the night, which leads to a brutal confrontation. It’s ultimately the tale of Tony’s quest for revenge for what happens to his family.
It’s the scenes of the roadside crime and its aftermath that are most haunting. Ford creates a sickening cat-and-mouse atmosphere that calls to mind the most infamous scenes from Deliverance. There is a particularly jarring moment in Nocturnal Animals that adds weight to the provocateur label I used earlier. Susan is meeting with her assistant, Sage, after a disturbing night of reading the novel. They discuss Sage’s ability to watch her daughter at daycare via live streaming video, which makes her feel closer to her baby even though she has to be at work. Susan looks at the phone. She (and the audience) is blindsided by an image of the fictional attack that Susan read about the night before. Nocturnal Animals is an intense psychological thriller, but Ford delights in adding elements straight from a slasher movie.
There is another element that this movie shares with the slasher movie subgenre– its potentially troubling treatment of women. Critics have written about how slasher movies use women as objects to be sexualized and then horrifically dispatched of by the killer. The most direct parallel to this in Nocturnal Animals are the harrowing attack scenes Susan reads about in the book. There are other, more subtle instances of gender dynamics as well, including one that critiques the idea of toxic masculinity. One scene details a flashback of Susan and Edward’s marriage breakdown. Edward is an aspiring writer, and Susan reacts negatively to his work. Edward becomes enraged, as if their love for each other entitles him to her respect for his writing. The note Edward sends to Susan telling her the story of murder and revenge would never have been possible without her gives insight into a troubled man’s mind, and how far he’ll go to settle the score. The movie seems to take Edward’s side, though, nearly removing Susan’s agency. For most of the film, all Susan does is read a book. It’s a complex, if at times unsettling, exploration of gender.
The weakest aspects of the film are several of the performances. Jake Gyllenhaal pulls double duty as both Edward in the flashback scenes, and the protagonist in his own novel, Tony. I’m a great admirer of Gyllenhaal’s body of work, but in Nocturnal Animals his Texas drawl is cartoonish. The same goes for Laura Linney as Susan’s mother, Anne. Linney is also seen in flashback, discouraging her daughter from marrying Edward. Her idea for the role was clearly as a Texas debutante (she has the big hair to go with the big accent), but it’s so oversized as to seem like it belongs in another movie. Amy Adams as Susan is excellent, even though she’s not given much to do except react to the book she’s reading. Her distinct lack of an accent can be understood as a decision by the character to try and shed her southern roots now that she is important in the Los Angeles art scene. Michael Shannon relishes chewing all the scenery he can as Bobby Andes, the southern detective in the novel who investigates the crime. Shannon is a delight to watch. He’s an actor who commands your attention every second he’s on screen.
Nocturnal Animals is troubling, challenging, mesmerizing, and thought-provoking. After the success of A Single Man, and now this movie, I selfishly hope Tom Ford will contemplate giving up his career in fashion, and go into film full time. He’s a captivating artist, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Once again, this is a movie that comes down to tone and mood. That's what I seem to prize most highly. Nocturnal Animals got in my head, and stayed there. It's disturbing, and mesmerizing. It's far from perfect, but that's a bogus standard when it comes to art. It's also not as big of a problem because of Nocturnal Animals' strengths.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I failed to mention the several cameos in the movie. Michael Sheen pops up as a flamboyant friend of Susan. Armie Hammer is Susan's current husband. Isla Fisher plays what is essentially the Susan counterpart in Edward's book. She plays terrified well, but sadly that's all she gets to do. The lack of agency of basically every female character in the movie is disappointing.
- Jena Malone adds to her art house street cred after also being in this year's The Neon Demon. I'm a big fan of what she's doing in pretty much any movie she shows up in.
- Even though it's only his second film, Ford was adept at handling the nesting structure of Nocturnal Animals. There is the story happening in the present, the flashbacks of Susan and Tony's marriage, and the story-within-a-story of Edward's novel. A lesser director would have made a mess of a movie trying to juggle all that.