Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is an art gallery curator in Los Angeles. On exhibition in her gallery, she currently has an installation piece incorporating video of naked, morbidly obese women dancing and lifelike silicone sculptures of those women lying in a variety of positions – it's like a Patricia Piccinini piece, but without creatures. Real women, bearing their bodies and owning their appearance, and fake versions of those women lying about face down (many even look as if they're dead). Either way, both are not the thing they're representing, as one is an imitation of reality and the other is captured reality. Tom Ford's second feature film, Nocturnal Animals (2016), is all about this relationship between imitation and reality, in addition to art and the people who make it. "Everybody writes about themselves," says Susan's ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). That people do write about themselves is where the tension and anxiety in Nocturnal Animals derives, and that feeling never dissipates.
"For Susan," reads the dedication in the manuscript of a novel entitled Nocturnal Animals by Susan's ex-husband, whom she hasn't spoken to in nineteen years. It arrives out of the blue with a typed note saying that Edward will be in Los Angeles soon, and just as Susan's current husband, Walker (Armie Hammer), is about to be gone for a few days in New York on business. They're struggling financially, and their marriage is quietly on its last leg, but they're keeping up appearances. With Walker away, Susan has time to focus on reading this novel. As she reads it, a second narrative unfolds in the film: the novel, Nocturnal Animals, potentially as her mind's eye perceives it.
Set in Texas, where both Susan and Edward met as children, Edward's novel, Nocturnal Animals, tells the story of a husband, Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), and his wife and daughter who are going on a road trip across Texas. It is notable that Jake Gyllenhaal plays Tony, and that Gyllenhaal is the only actor in the film who plays two roles – even then, this is Susan's imagining of the words she's reading. This particular road trip that Tony and his family are going on takes a serious turn for the worst. The novel, serving as the second narrative, has an impact on the primary narrative as Susan begins to consider that what she is reading might somehow manifest itself in her actual life.
Reliant upon her life being disrupted by the arrival of the Nocturnal Animals manuscript, Susan's narrative arc can go anywhere once the manuscript comes into her possession. Beyond Susan being the programmer for an art gallery, it is only fitting that Susan, who gave up on creating art, is surrounded by art since she couldn't emotionally support a creator of it: Edward. Walking through her gallery, Damien Hirst's Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain is on exhibition, which features an actual bull pierced by a barrage of arrows in an upright position, like depictions of the death of the titular saint. The violence and perversity of that piece and a few others that she owns or has on display at the gallery reflect what she's feeling and "cross the line" of artifice and legitimate violence. Further, the way one of the pieces is introduced is particularly shocking, and the reaction we have to that motionless piece is not too different from the reaction we have from Susan's visualization of the manuscript.
All of these elements are balanced with great precision and grace by Nocturnal Animals' writer and director, Tom Ford. That the film could be even more visceral in its unsettling subject matter is telling of Ford's own restraint, as he makes a watchable film that still pushes enough buttons to make one sufficiently uncomfortable. Evoking the beginning of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), but never going quite that far, Ford manages to express the violence of this story in a frugal manner as he delivers punches only when needed for the emotional and tonal sustenance of this gripping film's narrative. Moving in and out of varying times and spaces of reality, the audience is already primed for these shifts because of the way the film begins. Further, the film juxtaposes "reality" with a sense of dread and manages to pull off more melodramatic tendencies that operate flawlessly in the affluent milieu of Los Angeles' art scene and New York's post-graduate lifestyle.
In addition to the narrative and tonal strengths of Ford's screenplay (adapted from the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright), his ability to film the human form in an emotive manner is remarkable. Capturing various kinds of people in various states of dress, characters wear their skin with personality – it's an extension of their identity that speaks just as loudly as a pair of Vertigo-esque jade earrings. That sounds obvious, but Ford has us see five different kinds of undressed characters in three different planes of the narrative and each instance has something to say about that person in relation to themselves and others. Having one leg of the film set in the art world and another leg of the narrative in West Texas, the clothing says what we need to know for surfaces, first impressions, and even concerns of genre, but it's the moments of undress that communicate the most.
Complimenting Ford's delicate touch with the subject matter and his aesthetic flourishes is Abel Korzeniowski's original score for the film, which primarily consists of piano, melodramatic strings, the rolling of tympani and the ringing of cymbals. This music, against the images on screen, lends Nocturnal Animals an atmosphere of intrigue and unease as the score is constantly moving and evolving. Its use is calculated, regardless of its beautifully mechanical progression, and with the violence and drama over multiple narratives from varying realities at hand, the music holds the film true to a single standard.
All at once morbid and hauntingly sentimental, there's a longing for the past and a resistance to a fictional story that pull Susan and the film in two different directions. Animalistic fear and animalistic violence clash as predatory moves are made and the sense that one is hunted is palpable. The "nocturnal animals" of the title take on a variety of guises and meanings as the film progresses, and all of them are correct at any given time – Tom Ford's ability to maintain a tone that allows for that to be possible is impressive. If Nocturnal Animals pushed its more violent material further, it might be even more effective, but it's still captivating in spite of everything that Ford elects not to show. Set against the backdrop of the art world, Nocturnal Animals manages to portray the gallery, private collections, and the act of creating in an authentic way with well-curated selections of genuine art as well as a very inventive original installation that feels like an actual piece of art and not an imitation of what art looks like (as is often the case in filmic portrayals of art). That it manages to pull off conveying the art world is only the first step to Nocturnal Animals' narrative success, as through those artificial realities come tension and pain that allows for the role of the spectator to be accentuated – and fortunately, we are all spectators of this film, and not victims within it.
My rating: 4.5/5