Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is an experience of extremes. One moment beautiful to look at, the next unsettling and troubling, this a film made with no intention to give the audience an easy time.
Once Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), the film splits into three storylines. Edward’s manuscript tells a violent and moving tale which touches Susan deeply. The audience is treated to this story where Gyllenhaal takes up the role of the main character in the novel. This unsettling narrative unfolds before the audience as a raw and real exploration of human grief, hate, and terror.
Told in flashbacks throughout the film, is the story of how Susan and Edward first came to meet and fall in love. Their romantic natures and youthful optimism is played against the cold reason of her mother who does not consider Edward to be Susan’s equal. Tensions in their relationship are at all times overshadowed by Susan’s mother, a woman who disowned her gay son and is described by Susan as a ‘racist, sexist, homophobic, Republican conservative’. Susan’s mother tells her that the more materialistic things she dismisses as ‘bourgeois’ will one day come to mean a lot to her. As the audience knows, her mother is right. Susan’s present is one full of art she calls ‘junk’, a desperate losing battle to keep up appearances. A friend of hers tells her to enjoy the absurdity of her world because it’s a lot easier than the real one.
The real world is one she comes into contact with only through the fiction of Edward’s manuscript – a work titled ‘Nocturnal Animals’ after his nickname for her, and dedicated to her. It is only this fiction that appears able to penetrate junk-art covered walls of her Los Angeles home. It is only this that appears to be able to reach out to her in her world of materialism.
The film is infused with an air of futility. Each character is held powerless in their own way, whether it be Edward’s inability to satisfy his ambitions as a writer, the horrors his creations suffer in his novel, or Susan surrendering to the desire for ‘bourgeois’ elements in life.
Ford wrote and directed the film (his second) and has been highly – and rightfully – acclaimed for his work. It remains to be seen whether he will devote more time to his film ambitions, considering how much success he has met with in the fashion industry.
The duality of real and unreal, beautiful and repulsive, are threaded throughout the film. This motif brings to mind the works of David Lynch. The character of Ray – a vicious Southern hillbilly – also appears to have walked out of a David Lynch film. He is played to great effect by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, whose violent acts will surely inspire the audience to a deep hatred.
Nocturnal Animals is a great success and will surely mark a breakthrough in Tom Ford’s film career. It challenges the audience and offers no easy answers. This is a film not made for escape but to question the audience, to test them, and to haunt them long after they leave the theatre.
Words by Liam McNally