Tom Ford may only be on his second film with Nocturnal Animals, but there’s no sign that his directing confidence is limited by this, or the seven year wait between his debut, A Single Man, and this new effort. Having been a key figure in visual artistry for most of his career, he’s got an incredible eye for stunning details and beautiful shots. Now, with Nocturnal Animals, Ford’s adaptation of the novel Tony and Susan, he’s got a script that perfectly matches his visual sensibilities, making for a constantly striking, terrifying, and icily sentiment-free piece. It’s certainly not for everyone, and Ford sets out his unapologetic stall from the very first shot and throughout a nastily hypnotising credits sequence, but if you can embrace the world he creates, it’s one of the most riveting films of the year.
Taking place in both the ‘real world’ and a book within the book, adapting Tony and Susan for the screen is a pretty hefty task. As Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) feels her second marriage imploding, she receives a manuscript from her long-estranged first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). It’s a book that he’s just finished, a violent and merciless thriller that, for Susan, draws uncomfortable parallels with the ending of her and Edward’s relationship. As she reads, we’re transported into the world of the book, where Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal again) and his family are viciously stalked and harassed by a trio of predatory rednecks in rural Texas.
In the first of many deliciously ambiguous details, Tony’s wife and daughter are played by Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber respectively, two actresses who bear ridiculously close resemblances to Adams herself. Whether Edward has written himself and his wife into his story, or if it’s Susan who projects that image as she reads is a question left largely unanswered, leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions, none of which are particularly pleasant. The way the plot of the book, entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals’, weaves into reality is magnificently executed, and rewards careful viewing in an immensely satisfying way.
Perhaps even more impressive than this, though, is the way that the events of the book never feel diluted in their impact by being a fiction within a fiction. Shocking brutality and unbearable tension are there in spades, balancing genuine darkness with rollicking entertainment. Watching Gyllenhaal face off against Aaron Taylor-Johnson, playing the leader of the redneck gang, is electrifying, both performances barely repressing animal rage. Gyllenhaal channels the same desperate coyote energy that made his Nightcrawler character so memorable, while Taylor-Johnson has such an air of apex predator intimidation about him that he’s impossible to shake from your mind.
Gyllenhaal is especially impressive here, as his playing Edward in flashbacks requires an utterly different display to differentiate him from Tony. Edward is kindly and oversensitive, possibly to the point of weakness, a far cry from the instinct-fuelled determination of Tony. Adams is given a less obviously showy role, but her cold, insomniac detachment is subtly superb. It’s a part full of close-ups and reactions, all too easy to overdo, but Adams avoids all the potential pitfalls. Rounding out the cast is Michael Shannon, as Detective Bobby Andes, helping Tony fight back against his abusers.
Getting some of my absolute favourite lines of the year, Shannon is phenomenal, funny and scary in equal measure and providing some much-needed levity. Standing out in such a packed cast (also including Armie Hammer, Michael Sheen, and Laura Linney) is impressive enough, but to do so when every member of that cast is at the top of their considerable game should by all rights make Shannon a frontrunner for Supporting Actor awards.
Not only are his actors showcasing some of their best work, Ford’s direction and writing are clearly him flexing his creative muscles to their full extent. Tony and Susan’s worlds have their own distinctive styles, each one matching their visuals and themes near-flawlessly. Out in the real world, where Susan is a high-profile LA artist, Ford and DOP Seamus McGarvey’s visuals are highly reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn’s superlative Neon Demon from earlier this year, though Ford uses a colder colour palette. In complete contrast to the varying gradations of grey so prominent in Susan’s story, Tony’s journey through Texas is about as colourful as it could possibly be.
From the deep yellows of the prairie to pastel skies, there’s not a single uninteresting shot, and throughout the film, Ford shoots with unflinching clarity, the increasingly harried and pallid characters never given a moment of privacy. Any moment where we might expect a cut away to preserve discretion, the shot instead lingers on exactly what we don’t want to see, making for sequences of rarely-seen and distressing power. This insistence on discomfort makes for edge of the seat viewing, but will inevitably prove divisive, especially in the unbelievably bold ending. Having seen a lot of films recently that eschewed powerful conclusions in favour of something slightly nicer, the bleakness of Nocturnal Animals was as shocking and refreshing as iced water down the back of my neck.
Cherry-picking the best elements of relationship dramas, visceral thrillers, and even proper horror, Ford stirs these ingredients into a masterful concoction that has no right being as coherent and engaging as it is. With one of 2016’s best ensemble casts, marshalled by a writer-director with seven years’ worth of brilliant ideas, Nocturnal Animals is an unremittingly tense and incredibly smart visual masterclass.