While I was desperate to see this film when it first came out it flew by & missed me. So, stuck in London for a few hours on Christmas Eve with nothing to do, my mum, sister & I went to see it at the Curzon in Soho. In all honesty it wasn’t the most festive film to see the day before Christmas but it was incredible. I was completely overwhelmed by how passionate it was, & I marvel at Tom Ford’s vision.
It’s the second film with screenplay & direction from designer Tom Ford, following the 2011 A Single Man starring Colin Firth & Julianne Moore. Nocturnal Animals stars Amy Adams & Jake Gyllenhaal, with Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher & more in an all star cast.
The story follows Susan, who receives a proof copy of a novel written by her ex husband Edward, whom she hasn’t heard from in almost twenty years. The title of the book is named after an inside joke the pair shared while they were married, & the opening page states that the novel is also dedicated to her. Abandoned by her husband for the weekend, she absorbs herself in the story of a West Texas carjacking gone awry & becomes fixated, while the film not only plays out the events of the novel for us, but also intertwines it with Susan’s past with Edward at the same time.
Amy Adams is Susan, a gallery owner living an idyllic life tarnished by her loveless marriage. She’s beginning to lose inspiration in art when she receives the book from her ex, & she’s completely enraptured by it. Adams is stunning in the role, as she is in everything, but there’s something totally different in this character – & that’s the lovability. Susan is not cuddly & cute, she’s successful & awe inspiring & wonderful but she’s missing pieces of herself, & Adams conveys that ingeniously.
Jake Gyleenhaal is Edward, Susan’s ex-husband, & also Tony, the lead character in Edward’s novel. As Edward he is kind, romantic & poetic, but vulnerable, naive & weak. Tony is similar, but the person Edward wishes he was more like. He fights for what’s right, & he ultimately has the strength that people wished Edward had earlier on in life. Tony is like a catalyst for Edward, a person to see himself as in a journey of discovering his identity & who he is.
Michael Shannon is Bobby, a cop at the end of his career who really wants justice. He is born for this type of role, & fits the character so well it’s impossible to see him as Michael Shannon, actor. He’s vivid & alive, & impossible not to be drawn to in every sequence. He’s secretly shy & lonely, but his dedication to his work & to justice masks that eloquently.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Ray Marcus, a complete an utter scum of the earth, cocky as hell, destructive guy. He is manipulative, sadistic, & utterly terrifying. AT-J plays him so magnificently that it’s scary. He is definitely an actor I often forget to admire for how versatile & committed he is. I wouldn’t be surprised by Supporting Actor nominations this award season.
The screenplay by Tom Ford is stunning. The two narratives are flawlessly intertwined, in a blend of similar emotions & connecting shots that prevents the story from ever being jolty or bitty. It’s smooth & elegant, & completely fascinating. I’m not usually a huge fan of non-linear films as sometimes they can feel like a cheap gimmick to make the story seem clever but this was excellent. The film gives you each piece of the story as & when you need it, & when it was relevant, & it’s not spelt out for you. It subtly gives you the pieces to put together & seamlessly create the full picture.
The blend of the two narratives is unlike anything I’ve seen: I’m pretty sure I would be unable to watch each story if it were on it’s own, due to the violent or tumultuous natures of each. When they’re brought together however, it’s transfixing, & one of the best works of storytelling I’ve seen in any film prior. Just as one stories focus is getting too much, the other takes over & then vice versa. It prevents any aspect being too traumatic or depressing, instead flowing through all the emotions seamlessly just as the characters experience them. It doesn’t have a set beginning, middle & end structure, instead featuring a continuous, snowball flow that feeds each part into the next effortlessly.
The ending is up for interpretation.
Spoilers ahead – skip this paragraph if you have yet to see the film.
The film ends with Susan, alone at a restaurant after being stood up by Edward. Ford says that Edward did not show up either because he still loves her, & therefore it’s to painful to see her again; or because she gave him the inspiration & strength that he needed to write his masterpiece & move on – it’s up to the audience to decide which. My mum & sister both got the impression that Edward had killed himself, alongside his character in his novel, but I think instead that him choosing not to turn up was the ultimate “fuck you” to Susan. He overcame how she put him down, & he’s proved to himself & to her that he has this passion inside him that can translate into great work. I think that Edward found his strength through writing his character, & now didn’t need to give the time of day to his ex-wife.
Spoilers over – you can uncover your eyes now.
Every single shot in Nocturnal Animals you could frame & hang on the wall of a gallery. The direction & cinematography is beautiful, & the juxtaposition between the different stories is brought together beautifully by similar shots between the worlds: most powerfully with the shots of Tony’s wife & daughter on the sofa, & Susan’s daughter in bed with a lover. That almost literally took my breath away. Every image is thought out from a creative perspective to best showcase & represent the moment, giving raw & sometime uncomfortable moments that capture each aspect of pure emotion as the film happens.
The film opens with a montage of nude, overweight women dancing with sparklers in front of a red curtain, as the opening credits roll over it. It takes a while for the film to reveal that this is an art instillation at lead character Susan’s gallery, but it grabs your attention instantly in a way you totally weren’t expecting. Director Ford shot the scenes himself, & claims that his initial intention for the scenes was turned on its head when he turned up to shoot them. He originally created the idea from an artist’s perspective to be a narrative of America in its current state: Gluttonous, overfed, aging, sad, tired. But when the day came to shoot & he met the women modelling, his decision was altered. Instead of seeing that, he saw who the women really were: themselves. They were completely & unapologetically themselves, in a world where everybody (including the fashion industry which Tom Ford is so fully a part of) is told to be a certain way. Ford immediately came to see that this was immensely better than his plans, as it was everything that lead character Susan was not. She was totally distanced from herself, a shell of who the has once hoped to be & therefore the polar opposite of the women showcased in her own gallery – & that’s why Susan cannot relate to or understand the piece at all.
Can we just talk for a minute about the editing gone into making Amy Adams & Jake Gyllenhaal look like their younger selves in their flashbacks? With both actors being in the limelight for a good twenty years or so, we as an audience know exactly what they looked like as early twenty somethings. The editing & effects replicated that to a tee, to a point where you suddenly realised halfway through the scene that this was done via editing, & not just actual footage of a younger Adams & Gyllenhaal.
The soundtrack is full of deep, intense scores that give the perfect amount of drama & passion to each scene. It’s subtle enough to not overpower, & just feels like an oral representation of what the characters of Susan, Edward & Tony are feeling in each given moment. It’s so tailored to the personalities of the three in a way I can’t begin to describe, but watch & you’ll know what I mean.
Obviously a designer is going to have a awe inspiring costume department, though not including a single piece of Tom Ford wear. Costume designer Arianne Phillips says “Tom was very clear that he didn’t want to take the audience out of the film by branding his film. It’s not an advertisement for him to sell his clothes. So we made a very conscious choice not to use Tom Ford.” . Perhaps more interesting is the fact that the costuming doesn’t include any designer clothing. Though many of the clothes, in particular those worn by Susan, feel like Gucci’s, Balmain’s & Prada’s, the costumes are actually all sourced outside of high end designers to avoid the film feeling like it belonged to a particular date in time.
Almost the entirety of the art seen in the film was on loan from real-world artists, the reason from Ford being “I don’t like a movie that’s about the art world that doesn’t have real art, because you can always tell”. The film is littered in real art, from Jeff Koons’ Bubble Dog adorning Susan’s backyard to an Aaron Curry sculpture in the living room, & a John Currin nude on the wall of her office. Each piece is a small piece of Susan, & subtly gives us more of an insight into who she is with each new piece.
Even the story of the novel is full of artistic tones, as it’s being envisioned through the eyes of the art consumed Susan. There’s a Richard Misrach photograph in her foyer (a photo that was in Ford’s personal collection), that speaks that Western Texas tone & worked as fantastic foreshadowing for her projection of the West Texas featured in Edward’s novel.
Nocturnal Animals enveloped me in it’s story & in it’s art. I have yet to see A Single Man, Ford’s first foray into cinema, but I am transfixed by his vision in this film. It’s intricacies & subtleties are what make it the great it is, & I am sure to remain in awe of it for years to come.
Nocturnal Animals is playing in select cinemas.