Nocturnal Animals opens with a jarring and disorienting sequence, one which is likely to fascinate and perturb viewers in equal measures. Middle aged and overweight burlesque dancers gyrate, wearing marching band hats, smeared lipstick and nothing else. Gradually this imagery is revealed to be part of an art installation, the gallery’s opening night swarming with beautiful people. Among them is Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), the manager and director of this event.
On arriving home, Susan receives a novel manuscript and typed note from her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Unsettled, Susan remarks on the parcel to her now husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). He is anxious to leave LA for New York, where he is trying to revive his flailing career. The distance between the two is palpable, their estrangement clearly a source of tension and deep unhappiness for Susan. Home alone with her husband now away and servants dismissed, Susan begins to read the manuscript. Disturbingly named after her former husband’s pet reference to Susan, and sharing its title with the film, the novel is a grim affair. The novel narrates a story of Tony (Gyllenhaal), who takes his wife and daughter on a holiday road trip. When their car is run off the road by rednecks in the Texan dessert, Tony is separated from the two women by the violent gang.
Directed by Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals moves between three separate, yet intertwined, stories. Firstly, Susan is in LA, alone and unhappy, working her way through Edward’s manuscript. Then, within the novel, Tony is in Texas, aided by detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) in the hunt for his wife and daughter, and for the gang. Lastly, Susan reminisces about her past with Edward, why and how their marriage failed. As Edward has dedicated his novel to Susan, including the title, Susan rightly reads much of the text as metaphoric of their failing at a life together. With Gyllenhaal playing both Edward and Tony, and Isla Fisher as Tony’s wife Laura, complete with luscious red locks to mirror Susan’s, the allegory is further reinforced.
As a thriller-mystery hybrid (with flashes of noir and western), there are moments in this film which seem a little too much like pastiche. That is, that the filmmaker is far too aware of the type of film he is replicating (or to which he is paying homage), and is painstaking in his efforts to be accurate. Especially in scenes set in the desert, there are some moments which read like sticking to the formula, rather than showing finesse. But Ford has taken cues from the masters: The Coen Brothers, John Dahl’s Red Rock West, Sam Peckinpah. There are some instances which appear to be distinct tributes. Though the most obvious reference point for Nocturnal Animals is Mulholland Drive, perhaps throw in a little Lost Highway for good measure. The comparisons to David Lynch will abound, but that’s impressive company to be in with a second feature film.
Ford has genuine instincts for film making; this is evident is many ways. Adams in the role of Susan is well directed; her pain and tension are real and one can readily identify with the emotion (while not the lavish lifestyle and specifics of her luxurious pains). Ford has clearly got a sense of who she is – there is a deeper understanding in the characterisation of this woman. Performances are sophisticated across the board. The film is visually meticulous; it is sumptuous and rich. Ford makes fabulous use of landscape, both in LA and Texas. There is an eeriness and mystery which is reminiscent of the macabre of Hitchcock. One would hope that Ford will not leave it another seven years before his next feature.
Nocturnal Animals is in cinemas from 10th November through Universal Pictures.