Tom Ford – yes, fashion and make-up designer Tom Ford – presents his second feature film with the same visual refinement and perfection from his directorial debut, A Single Man. Unsurprisingly, the man who brought Gucci from a failing enterprise to one of the leading institutions in the sartorial world had to have his movies be as bankable and influential as his couture brand, which makes Nocturnal Animals discernibly different from your average revenge-driven film. Taking notes from classic, drama-laced noir films from the 40s and 50s, Ford not only injects colour and high fashion into his sophomore creation, but backs these superficialities with aesthetically pleasing and interesting cinematographic styles – and just in time for award season too, with critics already placing him as one of the front runners poised for an Academy Award nod.
Susan (Amy Adams), a successful, fiery redhead and depressed divorcee, receives an unpublished novel titled “Nocturnal Animals” from her ex-husband with whom she is estranged. This manuscript, decidedly dedicated FOR SUSAN as consigned in the book’s second page, tells the tale of Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose wife and daughter are kidnapped, raped and killed in an unfortunate encounter with three troublemakers in desert-lorn wasteland somewhere in Texas. It also serves as the secondary but central storyline of the film, driving its plot. Anguished and angry at his loss, Tony approaches a local detective (Michael Shannon), and both of them seek to get revenge on the hooligans. Susan is ostensibly disturbed by the violent and nature of the narrative, but cannot seem to put the book down.
Interspersed between these two diegeses are flashbacks of Susan’s relationship with her ex-husband (also played by Gyllenhaal), from their union to their eventual separation.
Nocturnal Animals’ twisted, jaded multi-universe intertwines and juxtaposes the lives of the rich but jaded New Yorker with the run-of-the-mill, flannel-wearing Texan. This stark dipolarity is rendered in brilliantly tailored shots that present obvious parallels between both storylines, weaving one story’s visual seamlessly into the next. These in-your-face taunts act as cursory yet highly recognisable reminders about the film’s multiple narratives that operate on multiple levels.
Adapted from the gripping and suspenseful novel Tony and Susan, Ford’s interpretation of Austin Wright’s 1993 narrative remains largely faithful save the ending. With an already riveting story to adapt for the big screen, Ford capitalised on its psychologically dark overtones with a visual spectacle to match, which he has certainly proved is his forte, his eye for a charming aesthetic evident from fashion runway to movie screen.
One striking point of the film is its rather controversial opening scene. The film greets you with fully naked obese women dancing, their bodies jiggling in tandem with every uninhibited movement they make. This goes on for about an awkwardly long five minutes – already, Ford has his largely audience writhing in their seats with an unapologetic display of bare flesh. What point does he want to make with the insertion of this out-of-place montage that is starkly different from the rest of the film? That the human body is so malleable? Is this a stunt to promote self-love? Or perhaps these oversized women reflect the excesses of the entertainment industry and broader society, but somehow seem more like acts in a freakshow rather than celebrated representatives of the meatier community? 1
Is this a stunt to promote self-love?
Opening scene aside, Ford maintains a consistent look for his film – he brings his obsession with minimalism to the big screen, most visible in his heavy use of two colour groups. From the obvious casting of gingers to something as small as a paper cut, red (and its many different shades) is his colour of choice to represent revenge. Black is of course the other shade he deploys, as can be implied from the name itself, and the many dark numbers and make-up that Amy Adams appears in throughout the film. It is befitting that the overall tone of Nocturnal Animals leveraged on its titular significance, which conveyed many of the film’s themes such as mystery and sadism while also effecting the impression of class and elegance – and let us not forget its symbolic homage to the noir genre. But this darkness also seems to harken deeper construals, specifically a darkness to the soul that points to despair, a dark cloud that constantly rains on the chimerical and elusive notions of happiness and satisfaction.
“My ex-husband used to call me a nocturnal animal,” muses Susan out loud, eyes downcast, unsure of how to feel about this label. It hits us that we’ve just heard the title drop in the film, but something else lingers amongst the film-going audience.
Are we not nocturnal animals, too, looking to be entertained in the dark?