In 2009, Tom Ford, previously best known for his work in fashion, surprised the moviegoing world with A Single Man, a gorgeous, moving film about grief, depression, aging, and love. Many who had initially wondered if this was just a stunt by a famous designer who’d be better off staying in his lane were impressed with Ford’s depth of vision in adapting Christopher Isherwood’s novel. And for his lead performance, Colin Firth got his first Oscar nomination.
Ford returned this fall with Nocturnal Animals, also based on a novel: Austin Wright’s 1993 thriller Tony and Susan, which does not, upon reading, present itself as a natural candidate for the screen. In the book, Susan receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward and reads it. The text of Edward’s novel-within-the-novel is reproduced in full, so we read it along with Susan, and experience her feelings about it. It’s kind of a thriller, but the action is all internal: Susan’s thoughts, emotions, and memories, and the words on the page of the manuscript.
Watching someone read doesn’t seem like it would work as a movie, but Ford’s reimagining of the novel — which transposes a number of elements to fit his signature aesthetic — does succeed, on balance. At times its self-indulgence borders on self-parody, but it captures the mood of the book while also doing something new with the material. Nocturnal Animals is no Single Man, but it’s definitely all Tom Ford.
Nocturnal Animals is a story within a story
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a contemporary art dealer with a beautiful, carefully constructed life surrounded by cutting-edge art and furnishings. (The beginning credits of the film, it should be said, run over an installation art piece consisting of obese women slowly and nakedly gyrating.) Everything seems to be going according to plan for her, from her careful manicure to her gorgeous home and beautiful husband.
One day, she receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who as far as she knows never succeeded at his dreams of becoming a writer. She opens to discover the novel manuscript and starts reading.
The movie cuts to the story within the novel: Tony (also Gyllenhaal) is embarking, along with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber), on a road trip to a long vacation. But while driving a long, lonely road in west Texas, they’re run off the road for apparently no reason by a gang of hooligans, and Tony becomes separated from Laura and India. Trying to figure out what happened, he starts working with the local sheriff (the ever scene-stealing Michael Shannon).
In the meantime, Susan has to stop reading the book and then return to it, so her own life becomes intercut with Tony’s story, as do her memories of her relationship with Edward.
The screenplay (Ford adapted the novel himself) is tense in spots, brutal in others — Ford has a talent for staring frightening things in the face with such beautiful framing that we can’t look away. At its best, the result is almost too nerve-wracking to watch, even though sometimes it feels like massive overkill.
All the doubling in Nocturnal Animals winds up undermining it
The decision to cast Gyllenhaal as both Edward and Tony has a couple of results. One is that there’s a lot of Gyllenhaal in this movie, which is not a bad thing — the two characters are different enough to be interesting, and Gyllenhaal’s a great performer.
But there’s a great deal of additional doubling going on. Adams and Fisher, some people say, are dead ringers for each other, and in an even more meta bit of doppelgängery, the actress who plays Susan’s daughter, and whom we glimpse briefly, is named India Menuez, thus sharing a name with Tony and Laura’s daughter. The two also mirror poses throughout, as do Susan and Tony in their separate timelines.
This is interesting, but it makes explicit too early what was implicit in the novel: that Tony is a stand-in for Edward, and this novel is not some banal gift, but rather an act of revenge intended to exact psychological punishment on Susan, who doubted Edward and broke his heart.
This is an interesting idea, one that’s present in what a lot of people assume about fiction, which is that one character “stands in” for another, and that novelists are always basically writing autobiography. The truth is always a little more complicated, though. Nocturnal Animals picks up on this, making the links between characters in Susan’s world and in Tony’s a bit more complex than one might expect, even though from the beginning it’s clear that they’re linked in some way.
The result is kind of pulpy. Nocturnal Animals is not a smart movie so much as one that appears to be smart, with a glossy exterior (even in the West Texas scenes) but not many ideas humming underneath. But still, it’s remarkable that Nocturnal Animals works as well on screen as it does. If it feels heavy-handed at times, some of the visual trickery makes it interesting, and the ending, which deviates from the novel, is perfect. Nocturnal Animals is a bit hollow, but it’s also frightening, tense, and beautiful to behold.
Nocturnal Animals opened in limited theaters on November 18 and in wide release on December 9.