Tom Ford’s latest Nocturnal Animals is the sort of film that, I imagine, someone like David Fincher would get a massive kick out of. While watching it, I was reminded of one of his quotes: “I am interested in films that scar.” This film is certainly one of those. It has the dark and emotionally scarring sensibilities of Fincher along with the stylistic flourishes of Alfred Hitchcock, Pedro Almodovar, Brian De Palma, and David Lynch. Here the emotional scarring is done to the principal character Susan, played by Amy Adams, and the audience is a willing recipient of its after effects.
Considering the fact that this is a complex film, I’m electing to withhold key plot points so as to not ruin the experience of the viewer. It all begins one fine morning when she receives a manuscript of her ex-husband David’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) yet-to-be-published novel titled ‘Nocturnal Animals’. The paper cut she gets while trying to unwrap the package and the seeping blood seems like an indicator of the haunting events in the book and the resulting emotions that she will experience soon. These events are not just upsetting to Susan but also the viewers – only the latter won’t be as affected as her because in her case, there is something personal involved.
Susan is an eminent artist/art curator in L.A who is not doing too well at the moment. At one point, she tells her current husband (Armie Hammer) that she never cared for the art. Maybe this is the reason why her art installations are deliberately shocking and unpleasant – they could be a reflection of her state of mind, just as how David’s manuscript reflects his. Maybe they don’t mean anything and art connoisseurs are trying hard to derive some meaning from them. The same could be said of some films too, no? Does Nocturnal Animals fall under this category? We can’t tell for sure, and therein lies Ford’s strength.
There are three narrative strands going on in the film: one that runs in real time, a flashback and the fiction that she is reading. These sequences are edited with clinical precision and occur simultaneously. The characters that appear in David’s work has more life and are more interesting than the ones Susan encounters in her daily bourgeois existence. She is tired of its superficial gloss and glamor and yearns for what passes as “real” life these days, but she is trapped. At one point, Michael Sheen’s character tells her that their artificial world is less painful than the real world and that she is better off embracing the absurdity of it rather than fight it.
Despite being aware that her current husband is a philandering prick, she puts on a façade. She could’ve had a better life with David but somewhere things went wrong between them and now he is tormenting her with this book, which is about a man named Tony (Gyllenhaal again) whose late-night drive with his wife and daughter is viciously interrupted by a trio of bullies of whom Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is the leader. Johnson’s growth as an actor has been quite tremendous. As the repulsive and terrifying Marcus, he is an embodiment of peril. I couldn’t believe it was the same nerdy guy from Kick Ass. When things take a tragic turn, Tony is aided by a Texas sheriff named Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to mete out justice.
The world of David’s book feels like something that is straight of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Andes is the sort of character that you would normally see in a Coen Brothers’ film. He is tough, dark-witted and harbors a sad secret which he reveals later to Tony. There is a scene involving him where Ford pays homage to Michael Mann’s Heat. The ending is left ambiguous and viewers are free to come up with their own takes on what may have happened. This whole thing about the nature of one’s artistic creation reflecting one’s state of mind reminded me of what Steven Spielberg and George Lucas said about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – they attributed the story’s overwhelming darkness to their respective divorces.
It’s been seven years since Ford made his striking debut with A Single Man starring Colin Firth. With Nocturnal Animals, he has outdone himself. As with his previous film, Ford has given particular attention to the photography (Seamus McGarvey’s work has a strong Brian De Palma influence), set design (Susan’s world is straight out of a Pedro Almodovar film), editing and music (Abel Korzeniowski’s score is reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s work on Hitchcock’s films). I was surprised to see that its rotten tomatoes rating is lesser than some of its peers which are competing at all the major awards races this year. This film deserves more appreciation, in my opinion. It left me shaken and stirred.