Fiction and real life overlap in Tom Ford's gorgeous but troubling mystery film
The most interesting sequence in the layered, metatextual Nocturnal Animals is the audiovisual art that plays with the opening credits, which shows happy, naked, obese women with natural hair and satin cherry lips, who are dancing and twirling batons and sparklers. Ironically, it’s part of an art installation that bores gallery curator Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who is unhappy in the cultured, gilded cage she has built for herself. Things perk up when she receives a manuscript – a fairly bog standard crime narrative by her tortured ex-husband, Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), but Susan becomes gripped by it.
Director Tom Ford does well capturing the joy Susan feels while reading. Sitting in her minimalist mansion – beautifully shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey – the escapism the novel gives her from her staid, high gloss world through the visceral, physiological act of identifying with Tony’s characters and their urgent, perilous story is similarly mimicked by a watching audience.
As Tony’s fiction unfurls, so does his history with Susan, with the two tales overlaping and contextualising one another. In Tony’s manuscript, his surrogate Edward (also played by Gyllenhaal) is married to a Susan lookalike (Isla Fisher) with a red-headed teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber – who also doubles for Susan’s daughter from her second marriage). Tony's story sees the family embark on an overnight drive through the American wilderness before being driven off the road by a gang of rednecks.
This narrative has serious Southern Gothic potential, with both Ford’s sense of romantic stylisation and Michael Shannon’s brilliantly pragmatic, terminally ill Texan cop channeling True Detective. However, when Nocturnal Animals aims for True Detective’s complex meditation on masculinity and its failures, Ford’s film itself fails spectacularly. It’s at its very denouement that Nocturnal Animals' ugly misogyny is fully realised, with the rape and murder of Edward’s wife and daughter revealed to be a disturbing allegory, and any potential for sumptuous, suspenseful storytelling sadly adds up to little more than a conservative morality ad.
Nocturnal Animals is released 4 Nov by Univarsal