From the wholly unexpected opening credit sequence, in which overweight women dance joyously in a cloud of glitter, Tom Ford challenges expectations and makes it impossible to look away. In his first film since 2009’s A Single Man, Ford views these women as Valkyries or witches, luring in unsuspecting audience members and hooking them into the captivating NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any other way of approaching a film that is filled with musings on the complex interrelationship between the story, its creator and the reader.
Based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, writer/director/producer Ford opens his film in Los Angeles where art gallery owner (Amy Adams) receives a manuscript for a novel from her estranged ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). His story, titled Nocturnal Animals, is a brutal West Texas thriller that follows Tony (also Gyllenhaal) as he drives his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) across state. After the family has an altercation with three men, ostensibly led by the intense Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the story-within-a-story becomes one of horror and revenge, two things Susan gradually begins to realise Edward is visiting upon her.
The many layers of reality that make up NOCTURNAL ANIMALS speak directly to the notion of what scholar Martin Barker called the “implied reader” in any text. Every story has a narrator, and a particular way that narrator tells the story to a particular kind of reader. This is turn creates the role of the reader, and it is a role that “we have to be willing to play.” Susan gets sucked into this role of the reader, as it is a role that has been created specifically for her, with her mind’s eye creating the Tony character as a mirror to her ex-husband. This film is full of these mirror moments, as Susan’s life begins to reflect the dark progression of Tony’s journey, with scenes directly juxtaposed and overlapping as the film reaches its grim crescendo. We as the audience become another layer in that puzzle, in a Hitchcockian reflection on what it means to be a viewer.
The film is also a musing on the nature of loss. On the most literal level, Edward’s nihilistic novel in the style of Cormac McCarthy is about a man enacting a long and slow revenge in order to cope with his loss. The parallel story in the “real world” is about losing the past, and losing a sense of self. Disturbed by the frequent absences of her husband (Armie Hammer), there’s a part of her life she can never get back, and the depth of that loss becomes apparent as the novel forces more truths to the surface.
Adams leads a collection of stunning performances, with a thousand-yard stare that belies a wellspring of emotions bubbling beneath the surface. At a Q & A event in Sydney, Ford spoke about the way characters are put together, with Susan being a constructed version of the way she used to be. Taylor-Johnson’s performance is transformative, oozing both charm and creepiness out of every pore, and we see a disturbing amount of his pores in some scenes. Seamus McGarvey’s impeccable photography enhances Ford’s visual flair, showcasing the light and dark sides of Los Angeles and west Texas.
The dual narratives come to powerfully simple endings, and will continue to provoke audiences into a reaction. With NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, Ford might still be finding out who he is as a filmmaker – wearing influences from Alfred Hitchcock to Brian De Palma on his well-tailored sleeve – but he unquestionably solidifies his reputation as a stylish and thoughtful creator with a strong narrative voice.