Let me warn you now: there are inevitable spoilers in the following review of Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (you might remember him from such things as A Single Man and a pair of sunglasses, since Ford was born designer, and he still is, but also enjoys writing screenplays and direct movies). So, if you don’t want spoilers, let me tell you that the movie is astounding and you should certainly check it out. For those of you who want to know a little more, here are my thoughts.
The film begins by introducing us to a bored and sad Susan Morrow (Amy Adams, who worked on a lot of trash… ehm, movies like Man of Steel, Batman V Superman, and Enchanted) in her golden world of art business for the rich. Actually, the film begins with titles which immediately reveal that this film won’t leave you indifferent, and I challenge anyone not to be moved by Nocturnal Animals. But I digress, let’s go back to the plot. During a weekend when her husband (a sort of Barbie’s Ken played by Armie Hammer) leaves home for “work” (yes, that sort of “work”), Susan receives a manuscript from her first husband (called Edward Sheffield) whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years. This is a book he wrote and dedicated to her, accompanied by a letter in which he tells her that he’ll be in town these days and that he wanted her to be the first to read his work which will be published in a few days. From this moment onwards, Tom Ford shows us two stories: the reality of Susan Morrow, golden but empty and with people with completely fake feelings, and the story of the book, in which Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s as good an actor as his surname is unpronounceable) travels by car with his wife and daughter through Texas. In fact, there are three stories, because we see both the present and various flashbacks of Susan Morrow’s life.
Second and final warning. The spoilers really start here! In Edward Sheffield’s book, Tony Hastings has an altercation with a car carrying three boys from Texas who are anything but harmless. The premises here recall the episode of Relatos Salvajes (2014 – it’s a great Argentine film by Damián Szifrón: if you haven’t seen it, do it as soon as you can because it’s worth it!) in which two drivers end up killing each other for a misunderstanding while driving their respective cars. The tension rises when Hastings is forced to stop the car and confront the three, in a spiral of violence that leads to the kidnapping of his wife and daughter who will end up very badly. Hastings survives and meets the lieutenant of the place (played by a wonderful Michael Shannon, Jeff Nichols’ favorite actor, and let me give you some suggestions: Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud are all good movies!) who takes charge of the case. But the investigation doesn’t go anywhere for a year, when for another crime the lieutenant manages to capture two of the three, but has no evidence to frame their leader (a really scary Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This will end with a private revenge facilitated by the lieutenant who has nothing to lose as he is about to die of cancer, a vengeance that will eventually kill the poor Hastings. In the real world, meanwhile, Susan will be left alone and trapped in her empty life whose premises she created twenty years before by leaving Sheffield, a Sheffield that we will never see despite the meeting she arranged with the sad Susan. [a note: Ford really wanted to be clear on the theme of the movie with the scene in which there’s a huge REVENGE sign written in large letters above a drawing!]
But why does such a tragic story (in the true sense of tragedy, where all the characters die!) manage to work so well? Because Tom Ford uses the story of the book as a metaphor to explain what the ex-husband of Susan Morrow felt when she abandoned him. In a flashback, we see her leave a clinic after having aborted: he lost his wife and son/daughter at once. And there’s more. Tom Ford gives an incredible rhythm to this film and manages to do it practically only with the editing and with an inventive direction with produces many incredible images. The director develops a number of themes in a non-trivial and, indeed, very profound way. Nocturnal Animals deals with life choices made to follow roles that we find ourselves in due to our closest family and friends. It speaks of lives marked by decisions that left indelible wounds with harmful consequences for everyone. The movie also demonstrates how useless revenge is, a revenge that in the book leads to the death of the one who pursues it, and that in reality leaves us with a dramatic ending underlined by a music maybe even too epic (I believe that even with something less devastating Ford would have managed to convey what he wanted to convey – by the way, Amy Adams’ green dress is also epic in that scene!). The movie shows the world of the rich, once again presented as gaunt, empty, and bored. There’s a fantastic line of an acquaintance of Susan: “It’s not so bad to have a homosexual husband… I am his only woman!” That husband, among other things, delivers one of the most meaningful sentences of the film about the difference between the real and the fantasy world in which these rich people are enclosed, a phrase that resonates strongly in the viewer’s ears with the development of the film along the two tracks of the book and of reality.
Not only does Tom Ford talk about all this, but he does it with an incredible style. One has the impression that infinite frames of this film wouldn’t look out of place as framed pictures hanging from a wall, and in fact the camera moves little and when it does there’s always a reason. The editing is great, with many memorable passages between the two worlds (like for example the composition of Susan Morrow’s daughter in bed with a boy opposed to the corpses of Hastings’ wife and daughter in the book). Ford doesn’t even fall into the temptation to show us something perfect to make us feel more ill when he takes it away from us. Let me explain: the Hastings family before the accident is not the perfect American film family with smiling parents and the perfect daughter: they argue in the car, they look bored… and then they are wiped out. Very often, in order to increase the dramatic effect, Hollywood presents us with idyllic situations before breaking them (an example: in Bridge to Terabithia the blonde girl is PERFECT in everything, always smiling, always quiet, always nice… in a word, unreal, but she’s presented this way to make us feel more sick at the time of her disappearance), but Tom Ford does not. He also shows us both a perfect Amy Adams in public events and an Amy Adams without make-up at home while reading the manuscript. It shows us a glittering and golden world in which rich and empty people live, but it also shows us a dirty and dusty Texas in which the tragedy of Hastings takes place (or, rather, the tragedy of Edward Sheffield). These are all oppositions that convey the messages above. Nocturnal Animals speaks of second thoughts (impossible) and repentance (useless), and I don’t think it can leave anyone indifferent.
If some images on the web made you think of another The Devil Wears Prada, rest assured that it’s the farthest reference you can imagine. On the contrary: watch Nocturnal Animals, feel it, and embrace all the strong emotions it will cause. It will be worth it. Then maybe go out with some friends to have a chat before going to bed to avoid a restless night. On the other hand, maybe you won’t like it, it won’t tell you anything, and you’ll think that it’s exaggerated and boring with an asynchronous rhythm between the two stories. Ciao!