by Peter J. O’Connell
Nocturnal Animals. Released: Dec. 2016. Runtime: 116 mins. MPAA Rating: R for violence, menace, graphic nudity and language.
Nocturnal Animals, directed by Tom Ford, is a film based on a book (by Austen Wright) that has a “book within this book” structure. Ford’s movie makes the book within the book into a film within the film. Ford begins his framing film with a sequence that is shocking, yet magnetic. It is an “edgy” exhibit at a trendy L.A. art gallery run by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). This chic world is one that Ford, a noted fashion designer, knows well.
After the exhibit, Susan, who seems somewhat burned-out, goes to her cold, minimalist-modern home and says good-bye to her husband, her second husband (Armie Hammer), who is about to leave on a business (supposedly) trip to New York. Before he leaves, they discuss a manuscript that has just been delivered to the house for Susan. The manuscript is of a novel entitled “Nocturnal Animals,” and it is by Edward Sheffield, who will be played by Jake Glyllenhaal. Edward was Susan’s first husband, whom she has not had contact with in 19 years.
After her husband leaves, Susan begins to read “Nocturnal Animals” and finds it riveting. It presents a world that seems very different from her artsy-fartsy one. The story appears to be of the same order as Cormac McCarthy’s highly regarded novels set in Texas, such as No Country for Old Men, a violent thriller made into a film by the Coen brothers in 2007. Susan’s reading takes us into the film within the film, one which is reminiscent not only of the Coen brothers’ work but also of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950).
Edward’s manuscript is about Tony Hastings (Jake Glyllenhaal), his wife (Isla Fisher) and their daughter (Ellie Bamber). One pitch-black night this middle-class family on vacation is driving through a desolate area of west Texas when they have an encounter on the highway with a brutal trio of rednecks. The encounter spins out of control, and tragedy results. Tony has to come to grips with the nature of his response to these events and, aided by a local lawman (Michael Shannon) marinated in menace, undertake surprising action.
As Susan reads the manuscript—and we watch the film of the manuscript—she (and we) begin to see parallels of a sort between what happened to the Hastings family and what occurred in the relationship of Susan and Edward. Flashbacks to that relationship start alternating with the unfolding of the west Texas events. We find ourselves traveling on both “tracks” of Ford’s movie and appreciating, though in different ways, where each takes us. When she finishes the manuscript, Susan undertakes an important action. We wait in suspense for Edward’s response.
Ford’s directorial touch is subtle when required, as in some of his satire of Susan’s world, and of searing intensity when required, as in Tony’s story. Jake Glyllenhaal’s acting skills as Tony also reach searing intensity, but this terrific actor plays the subdued role of Edward with equal skill. Amy Adams as Susan continues her string of fine performances. (She is currently also on local screens in Arrival.) Michael Shannon turns in another stellar supporting performance. Also excellent is Aaron Taylor-Johnson—mostly known for goofy comedies—as the lead redneck. Abel Korzeniowski’s score is exactly right for the film, having both throbbing neo-romanticism and Glassian-type minimalism.
“Footnotes” to the film: Tom Ford’s only previous film, A Single Man (2009), was critically acclaimed and believed by some to have, like Nocturnal Animals, a “literary dimension.” Some saw it as a contemporary version of the Book of Job. Colin Firth received an Oscar nomination for his role in the film.