Tom Ford has my full attention. The fashion-design icon directed 2009’s excellent A Single Man, about a gay man in the 1960s dealing with the death of his partner, and has now directed the even more excellent Nocturnal Animals. I didn’t want to see it at first. Critics made it sound dark and disturbing. Indeed, it is a dark and disturbing and fascinatingly structured and gorgeously shot piece of cinema.
Ford adapted the screenplay from author Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Susan and Tony. Initially, we meet an art gallery owner (Amy Adams), who receives from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) a manuscript of his soon-to-be-published novel. As Susan reads the violent and wrenching tale, we see it played out in her mind. Reading it reminds Adams of her marriage to Gyllenhaal, which we see play out in flashbacks.
While watching three different stories unfold concurrently will probably create confusion for some, Ford makes sure at the very least to visually differentiate each world, filling the present with colder colors, imbuing the past with a brighter, warmer palette, and shining harsh light on the characters in the pulpy, Texas-set book-within-the-movie. Steven Soderbergh employed a similar tactic in Traffic, though perhaps a little more obviously.
Ford moves smoothly between the stories, and has each one inform the other — for instance, a car that appears in the past-story also appears in the book-story. Their interconnection also serves to make each story compelling. You want to see what destroyed Adams’ and Gyllenhaal’s marriage, you want to know if book-Gyllenhaal catches up with a murderous creep (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and you want to see what comes of present-day Adams reading her ex’s book.
Having three different stories play out also allows the actors to play more than one character and display their range. Adams, who had a great year with this film and Arrival, excels as her present-self, with her cold demeanor, but is probably the most engaging as her past-self, when she’s happy and in obvious love with Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal himself proves especially good as his book-story character, who rapidly deteriorates emotionally and psychologically.
Taylor-Johnson, who won a Golden Globe for his performance here, makes a great bully of a bad guy. He’s the main reason why his book-story roadside confrontation with Gyllenhaal’s family proves so unsettling. As a Texas cop in the book-story who helps Gyllenhaal find Taylor-Johnson, Michael Shannon deservedly earned an Oscar nod, so indelible and watchable is he embodying a kind of Old West machismo and mixing in some genuine menace.
Ford’s day job as a top-notch fashion designer benefits the film immensely, as he soaks the thing in beautiful visuals. And I don’t just mean via the aforementioned color scheme, but also his exquisite framing of shots and, of course, in how he dresses the characters, Adams in particular. He also gets to outfit Laura Linney, who, though she has only one scene as Adams’ disapproving mother, manages to create a complete and completely fascinating person. Much like the film Ford has fashioned. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 2/21/17