A jilted husband uses the power of the pen to mess with his ex-wife’s mind in Nocturnal Animals, an engaging and dark-hearted film from director Tom Ford.
Amy Adams, on fire in 2016 even after you deduct points due to 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; 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 while the two were together, but now he just might have written the novel that could get his career going. Susan agrees to read the advance copy—and the story within, to say the least, freaks her out.
The film’s screenplay, written by Ford and based on the novel by Austin Wright, takes a rather 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 is essentially playing 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 the events in the novel are based upon “real” occurrences, or are just symbolic representations 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 work 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 Ray (a completely terrifying Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Things go really wrong, 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 much damned fun to watch.
Well … it’s fun in that it’s a pleasure to see performers setting the screen ablaze with their work. It’s not so fun in that there are a lot of exposed nerves and brutal moments in this movie; it isn’t for the fainthearted. Ford and friends are trafficking in the dark side. All of the worst fears of husbands and wives are in play, and happy endings aren’t on anyone’s mind.
Gyllenhaal, who did a great job with dual roles in Enemy, excels as the jilted husband and helpless father. His characters go through seemingly every kind of torture a man can go through—and then some. You get the sense he worked himself up to a lot of stomach aches while making this film.
Adams portrays a once-virtuous woman made slightly vapid due to some arguably bad life choices. She still manages to create a character who ultimately breaks your heart. While Edward’s possibly vengeful actions might 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.
This is Tom Ford’s second film as a director after A Single Man, so he’s a solid 2-for-2. Nocturnal Animals is one of the year’s more unique mainstream films. It’s also a movie that might inspire you to take a less-rural road on that journey through Texas you’ve been planning.
Nocturnal Animals is playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).