Nocturnal Animals is a darkly exquisite vision of menace and regret. While it would be difficult to parse its thematic components and piece together a coherent thesis on what it's – for lack of a better word – about, it's allusions to revenge, resentment, and unarticulated unhappiness are woven through the two main narratives with such elegance and precision. Nocturnal Animals is writer/director/fashion royalty Tom Ford's sophomore effort. Unless you didn't already know that, you wouldn't think it. The new filmmaker demonstrates an innate visual efficacy with the medium that calls to mind Sofia Coppola and her own sophomore effort Lost in Translation. That comparison only goes so far, though. Unlike the dreamy shoegaze-y romantic ambience of Coppola's Lost in Translation, Nocturnal Animals startles and radiates malevolence
One narrative, set in the 'real' world, follows Susan (Amy Adams), a successful art gallery owner. Her writer ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her a copy of his new novel Nocturnal Animals, a violent thriller about a family man who has a life-altering encounter with a group of hillbillies in rural Texas (one of them played by Aaron-Taylor Johnson, giving an uncharacteristically charismatic and slimy performance). From there, Nocturnal Animals details both Edward's gritty thriller novel and the unravelling of Susan and how her past relationship with Edward may have provided the fuel-rage for his novel.
It's a neat narrative conceit that makes for an incredibly dextrous viewing experience. The 'fictional' plot is a luridly compelling story in its own right and has the veneer of stark realism and is filled with well-observed details. The best of those details? Michael Shannon as a Texas lawman -- he's both incredibly intimidating and deadpan, and is without a doubt the standout performance. Edward must be a hell of a novelist, we gather, as his fictional stand-in slowly descends into hell. The scene where his fictional stand-in and his family encounters the hicks is a superbly tense and horrifying sequence, and is worth the price of a movie ticket alone. It signifies a gear-shift in the film too, as up to that point we mostly follow Susan and her luxurious bourgeois lifestyle, which is shot like a monochrome perfume commercial and parallels the novel's theme of revenge, albeit in a more subdued and ultimately unsettling manner. After all, what has fictional violence got on real life passive aggressive vengeance? We're also privy to a flashback subplot concerning Susan and Edward's romance, a subplot that plays like a minor key romance film and serves to bridge the two main narratives.
There will be some who will be baffled by Nocturnal Animals. Its narrative strands are easy enough to follow, but what they ultimately amount to is something inherently unsatisfying and miserable. But Tom Ford is an aestheticist first and foremost. He revels in both the bright stark hideousness of the Texas landscape and the glittering urban steely glamour of nighttime Los Angeles. With a lover's eye, he opens the film with nude plus sized models, who are clearly pushing 60, dancing against a red velvet backdrop whilst proudly waving an American flag. It's difficult to look at, and yet it's unquestionably the only truly joyful moment to be had in Nocturnal Animals. An audacious artistic statement in and of itself.