Seven year after wowing critics and audiences with his mesmerizing A Single Man, Tom Ford finally returns with the thrilling drama Nocturnal Animals. Although the fashion designer/filmmaker’s absence from the director’s chair was longer than fans expected, Ford has not lost any of the flare that makes him such a vivid storyteller.
Adapting Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animal revolves around a successful art-gallery owner, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), whose marriage to her handsome second husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), has hit a rough patch. Frequently bickering over Hutton’s routine work related absences, Susan finds herself reflecting on decisions of the past when a manuscript for a novel written by her first husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives at her door. Left alone in her lush home, Susan cannot help but get swept up into the thrilling and violent world of the novel.
It is at this point where Nocturnal Animals essentially becomes two narratives juxtaposed against each other. Outside of the Susan story arc, there is the novel’s fictional plight of Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal), a teacher whose family trip to their summer home becomes a living nightmare. After a volatile encounter with strangers on a deserted road results in the abductions of his wife and teenage daughter, Tony and local police officer Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) embark on a lengthy search for the culprits. Ultimately taking Tony down a dark path that will test both his fortitude and morality.
Effortlessly jumping between the real world and the fictional realm, Ford does a wonderful job of building the suspense without loosing sight of Susan’s inward journey. He presents Susan’s reality as a cold and sterile place. A realm in which those in her affluent art world circle care more about maintaining appearances than actually addressing the problems in their lives. This is nicely contrasted with the warm and dangerous Texas landscape of the novel. Regardless of which area he is playing in at a given moment, Ford captures it all in vibrant fashion thanks in part to the gorgeous cinematography and sleek art-direction.
Fortunately for Ford, he has a wealth of talent in his cast to bring plenty of substance to his trademark style. Adams gives a strong turn as Susan, showing how a formerly passionate woman slowly evolved into the embodiment of everything that she once hated. Gyllenhaal is also quite effective in his dual role, especially in his harrowing scenes with the southern thugs (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, and Robert Aramayo). It can be argued, however, that it is Shannon who is the real scene-stealer of the piece. Bringing the perfect balance of gruffness and sly wit to the role, Shannon provides much needed levity to the proceedings. Nocturnal Animals may not top Ford’s work in A Single Man, but audiences should not expect it to. Ford confidently shows that he is a gifted filmmaker who can tackle just about anything. Hopefully we will not have to wait another seven years for him to remind us of this fact.
This review was originally published as part of our TIFF 2016 coverage.