Fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford follows his moving debut A Single Man with this ambitious and multi-layered thriller that contains some thought-provoking story elements but can’t find a way to tie them together in a meaningful way. Nocturnal Animals, which Ford adapted from Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, uses its story-within-a-story structure to tell a dark tale of betrayal and revenge that has a sumptuous sense of visual flair, even when the plot doesn’t always add up. It’s comprised of three separate narrative threads, each of which are well-acted and beautifully photographed but only two of which kept me engaged the entire time.
The one that didn’t could be described as the “main” storyline, which involves an art gallery owner named Susan (Amy Adams) who receives a manuscript for Nocturnal Animals, a novel penned by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) that he has dedicated to her. Troubled by her failing marriage with the unfaithful Hutton (Armie Hammer), Susan becomes obsessed with the story and stays up throughout the night tearing through page after page of the manuscript. She becomes desperate to find meaning within its tragic and violent contents, which spurs both flashbacks to her early days of happy marriage with Edward and a dramatized version of the novel.
It tells the story of family man Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife and daughter as they travel across a largely vacant highway in West Texas during the middle of the night. Following a run-in on the road with a band of troublemakers led by their devious driver (a triumphantly creepy Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the group kidnaps Tony’s wife and daughter and leaves him abandoned in the desert. After Tony makes he way back into town, he partners with a no-nonsense detective (Michael Shannon, doing some excellent scene-chewing) to find the criminals and bring about justice at any cost.
This segment of the film is the most straight-forward and engrossing from a narrative perspective but it can sometimes feel at odds with the more conventional “present day” and flashback storylines. Part of this likely has to do with the seedy West Texas setting in contrast to the highbrow art scene of Los Angeles but the tone of the “fictional” passage is also much darker and more disturbing than the rest of the film. The lurid details of the story at the center of the film may be too much for some audiences but I found this core story to be more involving than off-putting.
What I expect more people to find off-putting are the bizarre and inexplicable opening credits, which depict numerous severely overweight women dancing in slow motion with sparklers, all while completely naked. I don’t necessarily have a problem with a provocative opening sequence in a film but if it doesn’t properly set the tone for the rest of the story and if the context given for it later on is unsatisfying, it just doesn’t do much good for the movie as a whole. Tom Ford clearly has some artistic instincts that can lead to some truly groundbreaking storytelling but Nocturnal Animals could have worked much better if he had reined in his vision a bit more.