Dir. Tom Ford. U.S. 2016

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Based on the 1993 novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is a gorgeous looking film that has style by the bucketful. The images that open the film provide an immediate sense of its flamboyant style and also its interpretative quagmire. Obese women, naked except for an outfit consisting of little more than sparklers and confetti, dance in slow motion to introduce the opening of a new video installation by Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). While Susan labels the art “junk,” it soon becomes clear that without it, her elite lifestyle, characterized  by Ford as shallow and charmless, would be in jeopardy given that her second husband Hutton’s (Armie Hammer) business is floundering.

The fact that their marriage is also in trouble because of his philandering suggests that Susan’s choice of looking good over being true to herself did not work out too well and has left her childless, dispirited and unable to sleep. One day she receives a package from her first husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) containing his unpublished novel titled “Nocturnal Animals,” a book that is dedicated to Susan and bears the same title as that of a snarky nickname he gave her many years ago. The receipt of the book only serves to remind her of the man she rejected nineteen years ago as being a weak and ineffective provider, something her mother (Laura Linney) could have told her before she got married and in fact did.

The novel, that might be interpreted as depicting the disconnect between the elite world of culture and the down and dirty folks in the hinterland becomes a film within a film. The novel turns out to be an ultra-violent story of revenge that occupies most of the remainder of the movie except for flashes between the reality of Susan’s life and the book’s narrative. In the book, Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal), decides to drive all night on a lonely desert road in the Texas panhandle with his wife Laura performed by Amy Adams lookalike Isla Fisher and their daughter India (Elle Bamber). The dark aspects of the story begin to emerge as their car is forced off the road by three local good ol’ boy stereotypes led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

Terrorized by the lowlifes who alternate kindness with brutality as do all good psychopaths, the husband is abandoned on a desert road while his wife and daughter meet a grisly fate. Their bodies are discovered by the retiring detective assigned to the case, the cowboy-hatted Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) whose laid back West Texas charm reveals the most vividly drawn character in the film. When the thugs are located and cornered, the Texas lawman, who is dying of lung cancer and has nothing left to lose, abandons the oath he took to uphold law and order and invites Tony to help him administer instant justice, one the macho-challenged Tony cannot refuse.

The novel, nineteen years in the making, leaves Susan recoiling in horror as she remembers her beginnings as an artist and the values she turned her back on, and speculates whether Edward may be thinking of something other than artistic criticism. Written and directed by Ford, a famous fashion designer whose 2009 film A Single Man received much critical acclaim, Nocturnal Animals gets under your skin and is hard to shake. It’s unclear, however, what the film is trying to say other than that it may not be healthy to let your blood boil for twenty years before saying something about it.


Howard Schumann

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