Tom Ford Crafts Bespoke Revenge Thriller In "Nocturnal Animals"

It’s hard to say which is the better magic trick – convincing the movers and shakers of the world to pony up $175 for a pocket square, or writing and directing a revenge thriller that’s by turns delectable and depressing – but fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford has just sewn up both. Although “Nocturnal Animals” is just the 55-year-old’s second film, it’s a corker, with terrific performances from its A-list stars and a story-within-a-story revenge framework that bears rare dramatic fruit. Not for mainstream audiences but very much for everyone else, it’s a quixotic piece whose flaws are merely another puzzle piece, the whole searing itself into viewers’ brains with considerable ease.

The picture’s controversial opening credits are part David Lynch, part John Waters, but not exactly indicative of what’s to come. Stark-naked, obese women gyrating in slow motion as part of an art exhibit is certainly one way of grabbing attention, but it’s less about establishing tone than it is about the coldness of lead character Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). The Los Angeles art gallery owner nearly sweats antipathy, using a friend’s soiree to lament the “junk culture” of middle America while fretting about the reception of her exploitative art installation. Soon after, she’s faced with the revelation that her mannequin-husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) is probably cheating on her. For a second the ice starts to melt and she feels betrayed, but Hutton is barely mentioned again.

The meat of the film comes in a manuscript Susan unexpectedly receives from her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Estranged for twenty years, they still haunt one another, and the book, Nocturnal Animals, is that specter of regret and torment realized. As Susan sits down with a glass of wine and begins to pore over Edward’s words, the movie plunges us into the book’s West Texas crime yarn. Here, Gyllenhaal plays Tony Hastings, an avatar for the book’s author, and Isla Fisher his redheaded wife, Laura. The couple and their daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), are rammed off the road in the quick of the night by a band of roving creeps. On the orders of group leader Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Tony is separated from his family, only just escaping with his life. Laura and India aren’t as lucky.

The plain morality and oversaturated colors of the text are in stark contrast to Susan’s washed out, unhappy existence – the real world – but as she reads and reads, a funny thing happens. Parallels between her story and the one she’s reading seep through, similarities that are further fleshed out with flashbacks depicting her romance with Edward. This convergence of three distinct but interconnected narratives is a high wire act that would ruin nine out of ten filmmakers. But Ford – adapting from 1993 novel Tony And Susangets it, finding an equilibrium between the three and selling it with some extraordinary, seam-covering editing.

With present-day Edward still unseen but fully in Susan’s head, the realization of the unconventionality of his revenge begins to take hold. Ford wraps us up in each of his storylines, devoting most but not all of the picture’s second half to fictional West Texas. In it, a cancer-ridden detective named Bobby (Michael Shannon) helps Tony track and punish his family’s killers, so that they may know just a taste of the pain they’ve caused him. It’s a fine saga in its own right, made all the more gripping by the contextualization of its author and his past life. And vice versa. Susan’s shortcomings are brought to gleaming life by the text she can’t put down – text that threatens to put her down.

Where Ford misses the boat is in his supporting characters. Outside of his four leads, no one is allowed any impact. Not Laura Linney as Susan’s domineering mother, or Andrea Riseborough as her vapid best friend. And especially not Isla Fisher as the fictional Laura. Ranging across all three storylines, these are parts that might have been developed further or excised altogether. Instead they add to the air of misogyny noted in early reviews – an understandable criticism made moot by the idea that anyone (no matter gender, skin color, or background) can be a monster.

Whether the film works because it’s unique or it’s unique because it works might not be apparent a single viewing. What is obvious is that the sartorially minded Ford has a true knack for moviemaking, in all of its modes. “Nocturnal Animals” is often a visual repast that also delivers a refreshing narrative bent that feels inspired instead of gimmicky. Aided by a stirring score from Abel Korzeniowski, Ford effortlessly cuts to the heart of the good and bad feelings that often linger long after the end of a relationship. At once austere and salacious, grim and bubbly, the picture reminds that film is truly a limitless medium – and that even the most exhausted genre or formula (e.g., the revenge thriller) can be given new life.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: November 18, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Tom Ford
Screenwriter: Tom Ford
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Shannon, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Laura Linney
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, menace, graphic nudity, and language)