Nocturnal Animals is a weird collision of beauty, L.A High society detachment, and gritty borderlands madness and brutality.As Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receives a transcript of a novel from her ex husband Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) she sees that the tragic course of their relationship has inspired devastating and perilous prose. The seemingly incongruous tales bleed together into a bitter tasting metaphoric cocktail of compromise.
Tom Ford is a meticulous perfectionist. An artist whose talent is now cross pollinating from fashion to cinema when those skills are outwardly very different. His first film A Single Man, is a poetic and stunning snapshot of a man spiralling into despair. Performances from Colin Firth, Matthew Goode and Julianne Moore feel living fashion photography being weaved together in motion. Nocturnal Animals on the other hand, sees Ford contrast L.A upper class, high art existence with the apathetic wilderness.
What we see of the novel is both a projection of Susan’s perspective and the rendering of the characters in the words of author Tony. While Susan is locked away at home, in an increasingly stilted and strained relationship she is quietly consumed by the contents of the novel. As the Sheffield family (with Gyllenhaal playing Edward the father and husband of the family in Susan’s mind’s eye) make their hasty escape from their home town, a late night exchange with hooligans on the road escalates into a high speed pursuit and being forced off of the road. Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and crew taunt, torment and take the most minor of perceived insults as a kind of gasoline to the fire of their boredom. Tussling turns into kidnapping, from kidnapping to savagery. All the while Edward is shackled with civility, constantly attempting to look for an out that doesn't involve violence, or rash decisions. He's not built for the situation that he's been presented with; he's literally unable to react in any way that deters the hyena like torment of Ray.
The challenge of Ford's style is in the how aptly the performers are able to intuit and convey the depth of the their characters through the veil of particular aesthetic. If you're working with performers like Colin Firth, who is so intricate with gesture, you never feel like the aesthetic choices are compromising what the characters are trying to achieve. At times Adams, Gyllenhaal and Armie Hammer (as Hutton Morrow) feel like they're mannequins coming to life. This deadening of the characters could absolutely be a choice to reflect the lifelessness of Susan’'s relationship and existence, or perhaps the lifelessness that Susan is infusing in the Edward (Gyllenhaal) character. However, when Taylor-Johnson’s Ray and then Michael Shannon’s Bobby Andes appear on screen they dwarf everything around them. Shannon's rough and unpolished lawman, with every tick, pause, and line delivery only validates that he's one of the most gifted actors of this generation. Questions of Ford's intent toy with your recollections of the film because you realise that every part of the novel coming to life is compromised by the unreliable and unseen narrator of Susan.
Nocturnal Animals is a dark tragedy. Ford's motivation for the film is writ large in the opening credits. Obese, grotesque, American women gyrate in slow motion like a 'Fourth of July' themed, trailer park strip show. Like war photography, Ford wants to find the beauty in darkness. The souls of characters, remain wretched.