There’s no doubting Tom Ford has an impeccable eye. The fashion designer-turned-film director knows how to dress people, and in his second feature Nocturnal Animals, he wastes no opportunity to aestheticize the sadness and cynicism of his well-dressed cast.
A neatly polished melodrama-turned-thriller, Nocturnal Animals is Ford’s follow-up to his 2013 debut A Single Man, and it might be one of the most attractive films of 2016. It follows Amy Adams’ Susan Morrow, a woman whose coal-tinged eye makeup is as brooding as the dark accents of her lavish glass house. With straightened hair and crimson lipstick, this version of Adams looks nothing like the softer, sweeter one we see in the actress’ other 2016 Toronto Film Festival premiere, Arrival. In Nocturnal Animals Susan is cold, cutting, and precise, with clothes as immaculately chosen as her lifestyle choices. She’s a bourgeois woman who requires a bourgeois lifestyle made up of numerous housekeepers, a second home at the beach, and a Ken doll of a husband, the handsome but lifeless Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer). When a manuscript arrives at her home, we find out what Susan gave up to have this curated life.
The manuscript is the new novel from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Edward is such a relic of her past that Hutton doesn’t remember him when Susan mentions the book. When Hutton leaves for a business trip, Susan begins reading the novel, titled Nocturnal Animals, named after her habit of insomnia. The film flips back and forth between visualizations of Edward’s novel, which the audience views through Susan’s perspective, and her past when she and Edward first met in grad school.
The most engrossing parts of Nocturnal Animals are spent in the dusty, perilous world of Edward’s novel. Unraveling like a slow-burn crime thriller à la No Country For Old Men, the novel finds Gyllenhaal as Tony, a doppelgänger of Edward. The novel opens with Tony driving his wife and daughter on an overnight road trip through Texas. His wife Laura is the alt-version of Susan, and in a pitch-perfect casting choice, is played by real-life Adams doppelgänger Isla Fisher. The family has a run-in with a band of drunk locals who drive them off the road and terrorize them. Tony fails to defend himself and eventually the leader of the trio, Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), begins beating Tony up and kidnaps his wife and daughter.
The connections between Edward’s book and his past marriage to Susan slowly reveal that his fictional crime tale is a very personal revenge fantasy that’s less of an homage to his past with Susan and more of an attack on her and what she did to him. But as much as it’s his fantasy, all of Nocturnal Animals feels like a collection of Ford’s fantasies. Gyllenhaal’s Tony is depicted as the poster boy for Southern masculinity. He’s photographed like the cornerstone of a gritty men’s wear campaign; covered in a flannel with an unkempt beard, often seen driving a fixed-up Oldsmobile. Tony may look like the archetype of virility, but he’s lacking all the expected toughness and aggression. He’s soft and sensitive, which we later learn is a commentary on how Susan viewed him years ago. In these flashbacks we also get a look at a different Susan, one with naturally wavy hair and no makeup.
Adams gives an internalized and calculated performance unlike anything she’s done before. It’s a role that’s as minimal as the design of Susan’s modern home. Gyllenhaal is at his best in the film showing Tony’s cautiousness as he fails to fight back and defend his family. But the real star of Nocturnal Animals is Michael Shannon as Texas lawman Bobby, who helps Tony track down the trio of criminals. Shannon steals the best and funniest scenes of the film; he’s so engrossed in the intricacies of his character, from hooting like an owl in a suspect’s face to a hilarious coughing fit. He makes a difficult role look so easy.
As many areas as Nocturnal Animals swivels between, and as gorgeous as it looks while doing it, it doesn’t amount to much. Ford glamorizes each frame of his film to such a degree that watching it feels like walking through an art gallery. He often relies on heightened color palettes and vivid lighting, reminiscent of the technique in A Single Man, but the effect is not nearly as powerful or emotive.
The film leaves you grasping for a sense of meaning among its beautifully pretentious imagery. And that might be the point. Like The Neon Demon, Nocturnal Animals feels like a commentary on a world suffused with vanity, where obsessions with beauty and materialism protect us from our uglier truths. Nocturnal Animals doesn’t have much substance, but its dazzling style is hard to completely resist.