A meta-thriller that is equally shocking, seductive, bizarre, and beautiful all at the same time. Tom Ford’s adaptation of the best-selling novel Tony and Susan (1993) will either repulse or intrigue you from the opening credit sequence. There is definitely a pronounced shock value in this cinematic erotic mystery that includes an incredible amount of symbolism and theming just eager to be interpreted and dissected. Not typically found in mainstream cinema, the avant-garde seems to be the inspiration for many films this year. Nocturnal Animals is one of those films that is destined for discussion in a film or media studies graduate class. With solid acting, writing, and cinematography, you will be sucked into this twisted mystery within the world that the wealthy live in and the real world that most of us live in. You will likely find yourself thinking about what everything means, how it might apply to you, or simply appreciate non-linear storytelling. Although the film certainly rests upon the flashback as a chief storytelling method, Ford plays his cards right and creates a film in which all three stories are equally interesting. You may have heard it said–even by me–that some good movies are poor films; but, this is a case of a good film but a poor movie. That is usually the case with films that fall into the artistic or avant-garde stylistic way of conducting a visual story that contains a strong emotional impact.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is an incredibly successful art gallery owner in Los Angeles. However, the marriage to her second husband is not nearly as successful. He’s often away on business trips to New York. One evening, Susan receives a manuscript written by her first husband (Jake Gyllenhaal)–a once struggling writer and graduate student turned college professor and now professional author. She finds the novel gripping and disturbing. As she continues to pour over the pages dripping with intrigue, she is impacted on a personal level as she uses the world of the novel as a mirror on her own life. Taking her to dark places in her past, Susan finds herself on a path of self-evaluation as she is presently going through emotional and financially hard times.
Cognitive cinema. Focus Features’ Nocturnal Animals is one of those films that requires higher thinking in order to truly appreciate the symbolism and theming. Not that it cannot be enjoyed as a beautifully dark and disturbing story, but there is so much that can be analyzed in this film. From the sequence of obese nude females dancing with sparklers, ringmaster hats, and cheerleader regalia to the reoccurring imagery of crosses and death–both in terms of emotional and physical–director Tom Ford provides audiences with a film that can only be characterized as a mystery that is meta-thriller meets hints of erotica. Even now, I am analyzing the symbolism and theming as I write this review. There are so many elements to talk about. And I think that is the best part about a movie like this. Don’t watch it alone. Not because it is too intense or scary but because you will want to talk to someone about the theming or emotional commentary. I find myself with a deep desire to analyze the film with someone, but none of my friends or colleagues have seen it yet. Visually driven. Even without the dialog, Ford’s Nocturnal Animals can be understood through the imagery in and of itself. Trace amounts of Tom Ford’s legacy as a high fashion designer can easily be seen in the design of this film. And I am not just talking about Adams’ stunning wardrobe and hair/makeup. In many ways, this film–as a whole–is symbolic of high fashion clothing. It can be read in some of the same ways fashion is read and appreciated. Because this is only the second feature length film from Ford, there are elements of the story that give the impression that his talent for visual storytelling is still in the development process as there are times that his method of directing is that of an observant student or scholar of cinema.
There are three distinct narrative threads in this film. (1) is the main story that we open up to at the interpretive and conceptual art exhibit establishing Susan, her gallery, her husband, and lavish lifestyle (2) is the narrative of her first husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal)’s novel Nocturnal Animals and (3) is the story of the rise and fall of the relationship between Susan and Edward. Juggling three plots is no easy task. Contrary to how it may appear, the narratives are not confusing or incoherent. Each plays an important role in the overarching theme and story of the film. The incoherency is found in the interpretation and analysis of what everything means. It’s as if the film is providing the audience with puzzle pieces that can be arranged to depict something different for everyone. Perhaps you want to read the film as commentary on the relationship between Susan and Edward. Maybe you view it as symbolic of the estranged relationship between Susan and her current husband. Or maybe the novel is self-reflexive of the life Susan has created for herself.
Each story is stylized in such a way that they complement one another–do not necessarily correlate or match each other, but the narratives are complementary. Although the audience is asked to draw their own respective conclusions to the story, presumably Susan’s once lavish and charmed life will continue to rot and crumble as her husband is likely cheating on her just like she cheated on Edward. Still, there is a lot left up to interpretation in the best possible way. The Roger Ebert website review of this film commented that there are parallels between this film and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Fascinating take on this film. That is probably the best analogical interpretation of Nocturnal Animals. Looking at the film in such a way that Susan is Alice and the two other narrative threads are her adventures in Wonderland opens a whole new window through which to view the events as they unfold. On the surface level, there is a clear theme of revenge woven throughout the plot. This is indicated by a painting that catches Susan’s attention on her way to a board meeting. The metaphysical thrilling aspect to the subplot of revenge is the revenge the past has on the present and the present on the past. In a manner of speaking, Susan is listed by ghosts of her past, present, and future. Okay, perhaps not in the same way Scrooge was visited, but there are certainly some commonalities.
If you enjoy films that make you think, then this is definitely one to watch! As it was on a limited release until this weekend, you may not have heard of it but look for it at your local movie theatre. Fans of Blue Velvet will likely enjoy this film as well. Intriguing writing, solid acting, and beautiful cinematography make this a fascinating movie to prompt deep discussions afterwards.