Essentially a plot within a plot, Tom Ford's latest outing, Nocturnal Animals, boldly and beautifully pushes the boundaries of story-telling, depicting events in such a way that the format seem fresh, rather than a confused amalgam of ideas a writer likely just didn't want to let go of. Then again, props can't go entirely to screenwriter Ford for the inventive narrative structure in this one, given that it's actually based on the novel Tony and Susan by American author Austin Wright.
The movie largely follows Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a Los Angeles-based art gallery owner whose been extremely successful in her career. But while she doesn't want for anything material, she's devastatingly unsatisfied and restless when it comes to her personal life - so much so that she rarely sleeps. Her husband Walker (Armie Hammer) has grown increasingly distant, causing her to think a lot about her first love Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom things ended very badly with and whom she hasn't been in contact with in years.
Her troubled memories of Edward then take on an even darker tone, when she receives a book manuscript from him out of the blue. A novel entitled 'Nocturnal Animals' - a phrase in which he used to use in reference to her - complete with a personalised note and the dedication 'For Susan' inside of the cover. Intrigued and lonely, she sets about reading the book but as she delves deeper into its pages, she soon becomes paranoid that the shockingly violent story it tells is actually a veiled and vengeful threat.
With his directorial debut A Single Man in 2009, fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Ford proved not only that he could deliver a movie with style but showed he knew how to inject substance too, exploring the all-so-human themes of love, grief and social acceptance. Yet somehow, Nocturnal Animals feels like a more intimate and personal tale, centring around both an creative who's constantly surrounded by beautiful things yet yearns for more and a desperate Texan man whose family means everything to him.
Is it a gorgeous and glossy window into who Ford might really be? Not knowing, but wondering never-the-less makes it thrilling. Where A Single Man Ford could often come across a little thin, Nocturnal Animals is much more arresting and provocative, and Ford isn't the only one trying something new here either...
Throughout her career, Adams has always been somewhat of a ray of sunshine on screen. Her warm and open face working so well when portraying upbeat, friendly or even the occasional ditsy characters like in Drop Dead Gorgeous or Enchanted. In Nocturnal Animals, her character is barely even likeable - a woman who made some very bad choices in life - yet somehow through Seamus McGarvey's bold and up-close cinematography and her natural skill, you emphasise with her regardless. It's undoubtedly her most sophisticated and most nuanced performance to date given how little dialogue she's actually given to work with and yet the emotion she manages to quietly exude is stunning.
While a consistently good Isla Fisher might play 'Susan's novel equivalent' Laura Hastings, Gyllenhaal is tasked with bringing both the fictional Tony Hastings to life as well as portraying the 'real' Edward during flashbacks of his and Susan's relationship too. Both characters go on heartbreaking - yet incredibly different - journeys throughout but his performance as the former once again proves why he's an actor who keeps getting better and better.
You see, Tony is the lead character in Edward's Nocturnal Animals, a married man who embarks on a road trip across rural Texas with his wife and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber). To get to their destination, Tony is keen to drive through the night, a decision he comes to regret when they are run off the road by a gang of unruly young men, led by the psychotic Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and the events lead to violent tragedy.
Despite having brilliant actors playing them such as Andrea Riseborough, Hammer and Michael Sheen, the movie's supporting characters barely get more than one line each during the entire film but it seems like a conscious decision to feature them so little, rather than a deliberate choice to under-use them. People living in a world full of superficiality and fickle relationships flit in and out and never allow us to actually get to know them? Makes perfect sense.
With that reasoning in mind, it's unsurprising then that viewers actually spend much more time with characters in 'Nocturnal Animals The Novel', who, granted, aren't exactly bundles of joy but seemingly have more depth to them than characters in Susan's world. Taylor-Johnson's redneck nutter Ray and Michael Shannon's police officer Bobby are focused on the most; each being well-rounded and interesting without feeling the need to bog down the story by offering up their whole back stories. Unhinged Ray is even more menacing when you don't know his motives and Taylor-Johnson's undeniably handsome face can't help but make you feel uneasy. This isn't what maniacal movie hicks are supposed to look like, right?
The stark juxtaposition trickles down from the characters to locations and set design too. Tony's sun-soaked desert-set ordeal is a far cry visually to Susan's soulless and sleek apartment, or the clinically white galleries she works in, and it adds to the film's intensity and even makes you wonder from time-to-time which narrative is actually the real one.
All-in-all, Nocturnal Animals is a startlingly good movie which has you mesmerised from the opening scene - and what an opening scene it is - until its achingly long, emotion-filled closing one. With fantastic performances all round and a thrilling script, it goes far beyond just being 'aesthetically pleasing' and actually makes you think about what such concepts even mean and if they matter. Oh, and the score's fantastic too, but that's enough gushing praise for you now, Mr. Ford... we're sure award shows are beckoning already anyway.