Tom Ford’s bitter, immersive and staggering new film, Nocturnal Animals, kicks off with a surreal opening credits sequence of zaftig nude women dancing in slow motion. It has nothing to do with the plot but it effectively establishes the dreamlike nature of what follows. It’s also perhaps a self-aware attempt to obliterate any association between Ford and menswear.
Ford, adapting Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, sets the A thread of the multi-layered story in a Los Angeles that he and noted cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Anna Karenina, The Avengers) have robbed of its sunbaked reputation. Instead, with its low-hanging fog, the city becomes an oppressive, misty jungle. It’s here that native Texan Susan (Amy Adams) has found herself, running a major art gallery and married to her second husband, the charming and dashing Hutton (Armie Hammer). On the eve of a weekend she’ll spend alone while Hutton is away on business, Susan’s ex, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), has sent her the manuscript of his new novel. As she begins to read it, Nocturnal Animals starts to cycle through different times and realities, flashing back to Susan and Edward’s marriage while also showing us the story of Edward’s novel, in which a family man named Tony (also Gyllenhaal) is terrorized, along with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) by a vicious trio of rednecks (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo).
The neat trick of this structure allows both Susan and the largely unseen Edward to be point of view characters simultaneously. With whom any given audience member most identifies will probably depend on their own situations and experiences. To simplify matters, one could say Nocturnal Animals is an examination of the male psyche through the eyes of a woman. Or is it a look at a man’s desperate attempt to explain his psyche to a woman? No, better not go down that path. The interpretations are endless. The point is that both Edward and Tony seem to feel that they could have kept their families safe and together if only they’d been more masculine somehow.
Of course, that’s because Edward and Tony are the same person, in essence. Still, Ford goes to great lengths to separate the narratives. Present day Los Angeles is soft and dreary, like dawn on a day when you can tell the sun’s not ever going to come all the way out; the events of the novel are sharp and saturated, harshly heightened; the flashbacks are romantically warm in color yet the frames are cold and angular. All of this is true to begin with, at least. Ford brings the stories together gradually, at times even letting you wonder for a few seconds which reality you’re watching.
Tony, for example, grows to look more like the Edward of Susan’s memories. A shot of Jake Gyllenhaal standing in the rain could conceivably belong to two of the three timelines simultaneously. The downpour even further confuses things, as Ford repeatedly employs water–bathtubs and rainstorms, jacuzzis and shower stalls–as transitions between timelines. All the characters are soaked, weighed down by their pasts and presents.
Nocturnal Animals‘ pristine, meticulous design and aesthetic choices, along with its big name cast and Fall release, will earn it the distinction of a “prestige drama” or, at best, “psychological thriller.” The latter is a term snobs sometimes use when they don’t want to admit the movie they like is a horror movie. But that’s exactly what Ford has made and it’s a damned good one. A man will chase after his stolen masculinity with the terror and fury of air rushing into a vacuum. But, in this horror story, does that make him the monster or the victim? Hell hath no fury indeed.