A jilted husband uses the power of the pen to mess with his ex-wife’s mind in Nocturnal Animals, the engaging and dark-hearted latest from director Tom Ford.
Amy Adams, on fire in 2016 even after you factor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, plays Susan Morrow, a bizarre art gallery owner stuck in a rut. Her bland but gorgeous husband (Armie Hammer—also having a good year) is ambivalent toward her, and she’s borderline broke and generally unhappy.
She gets a manuscript in the mail from ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He was a struggling writer when the two were together, but now he just might have the novel that could get his career going. Susan agrees to read the advance copy, and the story within freaks her out, to say the least.
The film’s screenplay, written by Ford and based on the novel by Austin Wright, then goes on an ultra-clever route. We see the story play out as Susan reads it and, as many of us often do, Susan casts the main character in the novel, Tony Hastings, as somebody she knows—her ex-husband. So Gyllenhaal plays two roles in the film: Edward in flashbacks and Tony, husband of Laura (Isla Fisher) and father to India (Ellie Bamber), in her visualization of the novel.
One of the great tricks of the movie is that it remains a mystery whether or not the events in the novel are based on events in the larger narrative, or just act as a symbolic representation of the cruelties Susan inflicted upon Edward when she left him. Also, we never really know if Edward is somebody who simply wrote a chilling thriller and wants his ex-wife’s honest opinion, or if he’s sending her a “message.”
Edward’s novel is a searing thriller involving a family, led by Tony, on a road trip in Texas. They get harassed on the highway by a group of thugs, but most notably by Ray (a completely terrifying Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Things go really bad, which allows for the entrance of a lawman character, Bobby Andes. That lawman just happens to be played by Michael Shannon, so now you know why this movie is so damned fun to watch.
Well, fun in that it’s always a pleasure to see performers setting the screen ablaze with their work. Not so fun in that there are a lot of exposed nerves and brutal moments in this movie, and it isn’t for the fainthearted. Ford and friends traffic in the dark side with this baby. All of the worst fears of husbands and wives are in play for this one, and happy endings aren’t on its mind.
Gyllenhaal, who did a great job with dual roles in Enemy, excels again as the jilted husband/helpless father. His characters are made to go through every kind of torture a man can go through, and then some. You get the sense he worked himself up to a lot of stomachaches while making this film.
Adams portrays a once virtuous woman made slightly vapid due to some, perhaps, arguably bad life choices. She still manages to create a character that ultimately breaks your heart. While Edward’s possibly vengeful actions might be fighting to paint Susan in a bad light, Susan still winds up a sensitive, sympathetic character. That’s Amy Adams for you. She can pretty much pull off anything in front of a camera.
Shannon, having a banner year even after you factor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, plays a lawman with a death sentence just about the way you would expect Shannon to play a character with such a dilemma. (Read: He kills it.) Taylor-Johnson goes against type as a redneck monster who’s unpredictable until he becomes horrifyingly predictable.
This is Tom Ford’s second film as a director after A Single Man, so he’s a solid two-for-two. Nocturnal Animals certainly goes down as one of the year’s more unusual mainstream films. It’s also a movie that might inspire you to take a more populated road on that journey through Texas you’ve been planning.