If nothing else, Nocturnal Animals tells us that money most certainly does not buy happiness. A ridiculously wealthy art gallery manager, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) lives in a stark modernist mansion that possesses all the (superficial) trappings of success, yet she is seemingly devoid of any joy in her life. She is no longer passionate about her work and is stuck in a loveless marriage with Walker (Armie Hammer), a man with about as much personality as a cardboard box. This second film from fashion designer Tom Ford after 2009’s A Single Man is a bleak musing on life, love and art, interwoven with a Texas-set crime thriller in which Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) teams up with Michael Shannon’s laconic police officer to seek retribution against those that terrorised his wife and daughter.
The crime drama that unfolds is a visualisation of the events in a fictional novel from which the film gets its name. Written by Susan’s ex-husband Edward (also played by Gyllenhaal), a proof copy of the book has been delivered to her and, as she becomes immersed in this story of violence and revenge, we see the events play out on screen. When Tony (the central character in the book) and his family – wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter Helen (Ellie Bamber) – clash with a trio of rednecks on the highway late at night, the encounter has devastating consequences. The sun-scorched Texas desert is a stark contrast to the cold, austere confines of Susan’s house, yet Ford and his editor Joan Sobel successfully meld the two worlds together through the use of cross-fades and other tricks of the trade that seamlessly switches the action from the events of Edward’s novel to Susan’s world.
Whilst the emotionally stilted Susan is the central figure around which everything else revolves, it is Tony’s story that resonates most as his relationship with Shannon’s morally ambiguous Bobby Andes morphs from one of mistrust and antagonism to a friendship of convenience as they set forth on a mission to see those responsible get their comeuppance. There are some harrowing moments that play out and what is most interesting is the way in which Ford has used this story-within-a-story to make Susan seem so detestable. Her ‘problems’ seem so insignificant by comparison, yet she continues to wallow in misery as Tony is faced with the struggle of coming to terms with what took place on that fateful night. A series of flashbacks provide insight into various important moments in Susan’s life, including her marriage to Edward, while a dinner conversation with her snobbish, bigoted mother Anne (played by an aged-up Laura Linney in her only scene) proves particularly prophetic.
Whilst Susan is horrified by what she reads, it never brings her any enlightenment about the privilege of her own existence or what Edward’s true intentions may be in delivering the book to her. When, towards the end of the movie, Edward suggests they get together for dinner, it is as though she expects nothing less than for Edward to want to see her again despite having treated him so terribly all those years ago. Whilst the final frames of the film are perhaps intended to engender audience sympathy for Susan, I found myself desperately hoping that something really bad might still befall this narcissist who had become everything she declared so vehemently to her mother that she would not.
This is a movie filled with brutal characters, but Nocturnal Animals is an enthralling story meticulously presented. The performances from Adams, Gyllenhall and Shannon are first rate and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is also excellent as Ray Marcus, the ringleader of the trio who set upon Tony and his family. Ford’s background in the design industry is apparent in the sheer beauty of so many scenes, particularly those in the LA-set art world that Susan inhabits. Gaudy and gratuitous at times, Nocturnal Animals is decidedly downbeat in tone and, whilst it might not achieve the level of psychological complexity that Ford perhaps intended, it is a challenging, engaging and wholly satisfying revenge thriller.