Heaven help us if Tom Ford ever decides to make a horror film. The nightmare story-within-the-story of Nocturnal Animals - a fictional thriller Amy Adams’ character is reading, written by her estranged ex-husband - is so legitimately gripping and terrifying that it often completely overshadows its own framing story, which is where Ford’s real thematic concerns lie. Parsing those concerns is at times a bit of a challenge - partially because of just how harrowing that second story is - but it's a seductive and worthwhile one.
After a title sequence which in the near future will be giphy’d to the ends of the earth - morbidly obese, naked women adorned in American flag iconography gyrate in hypnotic slow-motion - we meet the woman presenting this trashy spectacle. Art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Adams) is a walking stereotype of compromise - a woman who once had artistic aspirations, but eventually went for the financial stability of exhibiting other people’s efforts. A woman who once burned with passion, who has now “become her mother” (her phrase), putting away the creative ideals of her youth and embracing respectability. A woman who once loved someone deeply, and destroyed it for a chance at prosperity. That all these things come with their own troubles - her gallery is struggling, her husband (Armie Hammer) is cheating - is not lost on her, but she seems resigned to her path.
Susan opens a package sent by her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), and immediately gets a paper cut. Not subtle! But writer/director Ford wields both subtlety and the broader gestures with equal skill, and he makes it work. Inside that blood-drawing parcel is the manuscript of her ex-husband’s novel - a dark, deeply upsetting tale of violence, murder and revenge - and it’s dedicated to Susan. As she sits down to read this tale, Ford embraces the time-hopping of his previous film (2009's A Single Man) to bring Susan’s past and present to life. Woven improbably but deftly between the two time periods is a vivid presentation of Edward’s novel, in which a man named Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal), traveling with his wife (Isla Fisher, whose uncanny resemblance to Adams is put to canny use here by Ford) and daughter (Ellie Bamber), encounters a group of dangerous criminals on a deserted Texas highway.
The two stories - Edward’s novel and Susan’s memories - brush up against each other via certain visual grace notes. Their connection is often oblique to us - Susan's world has the cold, symmetrical perfection of her art galleries, where the world of Edward's novel is grimy, sun-soaked, flesh and blood. But Susan, for reasons we will come to understand, has no problem connecting emotionally to Edward’s horrific tale of about a man who watches his world end through the windshield of a car, as dangerous rednecks menace his wife and daughter. Enlisting the help of a noir-esque "man’s man" of a detective (Michael Shannon), Edward tracks down the man (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) who robbed him of much, including his own sense of masculinity. As we witness the moment in which Susan’s then and now collide, laid out in tandem with the conclusion of Edward’s crime story, we begin to understand not only what Edward is working through in his novel, but his ultimately toxic reason for sending it to her. And that realization pushes Ford’s story someplace even uglier than the things outlined in Edward’s novel.
Nocturnal Animals is maybe as unspoilable a movie as possible, but its joys and rewards are in the unearthing, in the small moments of discovery that happen with a line delivery, or a shot’s composition, or even a piece of furniture, so detailing the film’s many wonderful examples of such here would be a disservice. Suffice it to say that every performance is stellar - Adams conveys much through an often numb mask; Gyllenhaal continues to emerge as one of the best actors of his generation; Shannon rides that line of hilarious and terrifying that is uniquely his own; and Taylor-Johnson is legitimately unrecognizable, embodying the absolute worst of American masculinity. Ford proves himself adept at drama, comedy, and outright terror within this incredibly complicated, delicate framework. It’s both understandable that he spent seven years working on this script, and mind-boggling that this is only his second film as director.
Though it’s admittedly not the emotional experience Ford’s A Single Man was, the director’s hand is no less assured here. Possibly even moreso, as it pushes past the straightforward emotion of his previous film and explores not only love, but the creative impulse. And Nocturnal Animals has some dark views of love, but the answers it presents about art - about the need to create it, its painful birthing process, and the sometimes selfish and hateful reasons we’re moved to make it - will resonate with anyone who’s ever put pen to paper, paint to canvas, or light to celluloid.