I gave four stars to Tom Ford’s only previous film, A Single Man, which Ford made seven years ago. And as I watched the first half hour or so of Nocturnal Animals (about which I knew absolutely nothing, as it should be), I was thinking: “Wow! Another four stars for Ford and a likely entry in my top ten films of 2016.” You know what’s coming, but let’s stay with the upside for now.
I was mesmerized by the style of Nocturnal Animals, by the magnificent melodramatic noir score from Abel Korzeniowski, by Amy Adams’s portrayal of the very unhappy and insecure Susan Morrow (our protagonist), whose second marriage is falling apart even as she’s achieving success as an art gallery owner in L.A., by the gorgeous cinematography and even by the first terrifying scenes of the West Texas thriller in which Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), our protagonist, tries vainly to protect his wife and teenage daughter from three young rednecks on a lonely road in the middle of the desert.
Now wait a minute, you say. What’s this with the two protagonists, two locations and two very different stories? You’re right to be confused, because Nocturnal Animals is actually two one-hour films for the price of one. In the first story we have the “real” world, with Susan’s failing marriage to Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) and the arrival, at her door, of the first draft of a novel (Nocturnal Animals) written by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal), a sensitive man whom she had hurt in a number of ways. That the novel, dedicated to Susan, is Edward’s form of revenge becomes clear quite quickly. But Susan can’t put the novel down and we get to watch the novel as she’s reading it (oh joy!).
The Texas thriller is about a very different kind of revenge - the nasty violent kind. The highlight of this second story is Michael Shannon playing Bobby Andes, the police officer who assists Tony with his revenge. The novel as film and the story of Susan jump back and forth, and Susan’s story also goes back and forth in time, as we see what she did to Edward and how she’s become so unhappy. The intermingling of all the various parts of Nocturnal Animals provides much food for thought and a discussion of the film could go on for hours. Sounds good, right? Indeed, it is good, especially as we watch realization dawn on Susan about how Edward is getting back at her.
But (like I said, you knew this was coming) that second story is so darn nasty and violent that I don’t care how much of it is just in Susan’s mind (or in Edward’s) or how marvellous Shannon’s performance is (he deserves a Best Supporting Oscar for this), I do not need to see stories like this - not at all. So in spite of an intelligent thought-provoking screenplay, terrific performances by Adams and Gyllenhaal (along with Shannon) and all the mesmerizing details mentioned above, the violence in Nocturnal Animals turned a four-star film into one that just manages to hold onto ***+. My mug is up.