Viewing Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is an intense, almost exhausting experience. The pacing of the film and alternating narratives keeps the viewer engrossed throughout. A series of outstanding performances and an anxiety-inducing plot create a dark and thrilling atmosphere. Ford’s fashion background is apparent in the sleek and stylish look that the film maintains throughout.
Nocturnal Animals leans more heavily on its characters than its plot. Amy Adams plays Susan and acts as the eyes for the viewer. Her grief, pain, and stress felt throughout the film pours off the screen. Jake Gyllenhaal plays two characters: Susan’s first husband, Edward, and the protagonist of a book that Edward wrote, Tony. The narrative exists on three levels. The story which guides the film takes place in the present and follows Susan as she receives a manuscript of Edward’s book which he’d like her to go over. The secondary narrative is the book itself, which is acted out on the screen, presumably as Susan is reading it. Finally, the story flashes back to key moments in Susan and Edward’s relationship leading up to their divorce.
The multi-level narrative structure is executed to perfection as Ford creates parallels between Susan and Edward’s real story and the story unfolding in the book. Fortunately, he manages to create these parallels without being heavy-handed or pandering to the audience. Instead he leaves it to the viewer to piece together the meaning that Edward is trying to convey through his story. The main connection between reality and Edward’s novel is the idea of losing one’s family. While in reality he lost his family to his and Susan’s divorce, in the novel he loses them to violence.
The scene in which Tony’s wife and daughter are kidnapped is a masterwork of tension. It is difficult to even reflect upon it without feeling my heart racing again. The criminals who attack them are terrifying in a way that feels all too real, and will certainly make you hope that you don’t find yourself driving down a dark country road any time soon. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a surprising standout as the detestable leader of the group of thugs. While the film is a drama, it has enough horror elements to keep the viewer uneasy from beginning to end.
In an interesting casting choice by Ford, he has Gyllenhaal play both Edward and Tony, but does not have Adams portray Tony’s wife. He instead cast Isla Fisher to play the wife in Edward’s novel. This choice is significant because it implies that in the narrative of the novel Tony’s wife is not the only character symbolizing Susan. She is also represented by the criminals. These are the characters responsible from taking Tony’s wife and child away from him, a role which Susan played for Edward in their actual past. Michael Shannon as Bobby Andes is a key tool in Tony’s development, but also lends the film a tinge of humor. He is the perfect compliment to Gyllenhaal and a great addition to the segment portraying Edward’s book as it is filled with unapologetic intensity.
The film’s final scene represents the novel’s climax as Tony finally enacts his revenge. It isn’t clear how long Tony waited to find the men who killed his wife and daughter but based on the change of seasons represented, it appears to have been months or years. Likewise, it has been 19 years in the real narrative since Edward and Susan last spoke. In the final scene, Susan goes to meet with Edward at a restaurant to discuss the book. As Susan sits, finishing drink after drink waiting for her ex-husband, it becomes clear that he will not arrive. The film’s abrupt ending intentionally leaves the viewer feeling empty and uneasy. Despite her clear regret, Susan will never be able to absolve herself from her past mistakes. Though she condemned her mother for mistaking wealth for happiness, she makes the same mistake and comes to regret it. Edward’s absence from the restaurant is a final reminder- and acts as revenge- for the ways she wounded him.
Nocturnal Animals is beautifully paced, suspense-driven, and utterly devastating. The nuanced performances have great depth without excessive exposition. The characters reveal themselves through action and interaction. Not a moment is wasted as Ford packs every scene in the film with meaning. It is a film which will certainly continue to reveal itself in unexpected ways on subsequent viewings, but one which was also a great joy to watch for the first time.