Nocturnal Animals, directed by Tom Ford, is sinister and dark film. What immediately stood-out to me about it, was the way Ford presents his characters within his films; not only from a characteristic perspective, but also a visual one as well. Much like his previous film (‘A Single Man’) I found myself hypnotised by the honesty in his film, but this time around I was also transfixed by the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) cruelty within, Nocturnal Animals. There’s much to say about this one, so let’s get this review underway.
The story in the film is a layered one: Susan Morrow – played by Amy Adams – receives a copy of the novel that her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield – played by Jake Gyllenhaal – has written. We then watch as she reads the dark and unsettling novel, and see the effect it slowly begins to have on her. We then also get to see the contents of the novel play-out, and what is within those pages is something that slowly but inevitably leads to many horrible outcomes and revelations. So much of the film leaves you in a state of unease, and all of it is driven by the very human characters within it.
So I’m actually going to start by talking about something I don’t usually talk about with most films: the layers within the title of the film itself. Usually a films’ title is pretty standard, it’s just there to help give you an idea of what the film is etc. With Nocturnal Animals, it means so much more than what it first seems to be. It of course connects to one of the main characters in the film; Edward would often refer to Susan as a, “Nocturnal Animal” when they were married. But there is more to it than that. It also says so much about the characters in the film. So many of the terrible and distressing events take place at night, when the almost animalistic tendencies of the characters come out. But then it goes beyond that, as the film also comments on the gluttonous wants of people; the films very first frame is of an obese women dancing gleefully, which then transitions into multiple obese women dancing gleefully. We learn that this is for an art exhibit that, Susan has created which is commenting on the hyper-consumer wants of everyday people and how they can’t help themselves; almost like how an animal will gorge itself on food, to the point where it makes itself sick.
What my point is here is that starting with the title of the film and then expanding further into the film, there are so many layers to what director Tom Ford has created; stories within stories, characters within characters, and wealth of double-meaning within the things that people say and do. Tom Ford creates a film that you can find so much extra goodness… if you’re willing to look for it, that is.
So let’s breakdown some of those many layered elements, and I must absolutely start with the characters in the film, as it is something that, Ford as a director is brilliantly accomplished at fleshing out. Much like Ford’s last film (A Single Man), the characters in this film are complex and don’t have an easy time of it. What I like about how people are presented in Ford’s work, is that they are people who very much come with the baggage of their past; no one is a clean-cut individual who can easily be summed up. Characters are instead these tapestries of all the good and the bad that has led them to the point in the story where we then meet them. What that gives you, are an eclectic group of individuals, of whom liking is not something you instantly find yourself wanting to do.
Let’s take Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) as an example. She is a very wealthy and very successful women who creates, “art” installations that are extremely open-ended in their interpretations and very antagonistic in their delivery. She’s someone who comes from a wealthy background, and says it herself; has racist, sexist, homophobic, republican parents who aren’t interested in her marrying some weak man who has no money. So early on you have a main protagonist (though I’m not sure anyone in this film could be considered a protagonist) who is on a level of privilege that makes her difficult to empathise or connect with. You then also have characters around her that are also in places of privilege. This could make things difficult as who are you to get onside with in the film? Who are you to connect with? I was asking myself this during the beginning of the film. That was until I realised an interesting revelation for so many of the characters (not all of them, but the majority of them).
Yes a lot of the characters are well-off, in fact so many of them are sickeningly successful it’s difficult to comprehend, but what I realised over the course of the unflatteringly harsh story is that these wealthy people are still marred by the everyday failings of human beings. No amount of money in the world can make someone love you again, nor can it bring back a loved one who has died. This is what Tom Ford does with his characters: he takes the most alien of people and drags them kicking and screaming (sometimes literally) down to the same level as everybody else – think of it like watching a terrible accident in slow-motion, where you notice all of the nausea inducing details.
What I ended up with, was a film that delivered so many diverse and devilishly intriguing individuals. Did I like them as people? No, some I was happy to see the demise of. But did I want to learn more about them and see how their stories would playout? Absolutely, the film had me completely engrossed in their struggles.
But to shift away from the characters as people for a moment and to focus on how the characters are presented in the film from a visual standpoint; director Tom Ford makes his characters exist in his films in such a translucent way. The environment around the characters says as much about them, as their actions do. He somehow allows all the focus to fall onto the characters, while also letting the scale and the depravity of the landscape show. It’s an interesting canvas of images that you are presented with, and all of them play their part in serving the two most integral elements of the film: the character and the story.
Speaking of story; in Nocturnal Animals, it’s one that is so very different in its approach. The film tackles two primary story-lines, both of which fold in on one another. What’s really interesting about it, is that in the context of the film, one of those stories is fictitious (Edward’s Novel) whereas the other one is supposed to be the actual events that are taking place for the characters. It’s hard to explain, but what it isn’t, is hard to follow in the film. Ford brilliantly bridges these two very different stories, and keeps you engaged and interested in both. Also the way in which he transitions between the two storylines from a cinematography standpoint is brilliant; whether it is a specific colour scheme that almost translates the story that we’re within, or it’s the bonding of sounds that almost ferry you from one story into the other – Director Tom Ford and cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey make the two very different stories work seamlessly together.
There is then also the meaning behind the two stories and what they mean for one another. The story that takes place within Edward’s novel could be interpreted in a few ways; which adds another element of viewing and understanding to the whole presentation. But what it also does is convey Edward’s state of mind; a character who we only see in what could be considered flashbacks and never the person who has now written the novel that Susan is presently reading (Edward goes through some things that certainly alter who he is as a person). To have a character who has gone through some large emotional shifts – because of some of the things that Amy Adam’s character did to him – and then show to the audience how it has affected him mentally, through a book that he has written and given to the person who hurt him, is such a powerful way to present a character in a film. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ really is a film… that if you take the time to think about, offers so much more than what it first seems to be.
There’s something so hypnotic about Tom Ford’s films. But there are also moments (like there are in this film) where you might want to avert your eyes… but something deep inside, stresses that you don’t! Nocturnal Animals has been a film that I’ve had running through my mind ever since I saw it; a film with such staying power (mentally) is a film that I’m always so glad to have seen.
There is no doubt in my mind, I am recommending Nocturnal Animals. I don’t feel I need to say much more, this is a brilliant piece of cinema, and one that if you’re willing to take the time to look past the surface, you’ll gain so much from.
I’d love to know your thoughts on, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ or my review! So feel free to leave any comments you may have, in the comments down below. If you’re feeling kind, perhaps you’d like to follow my blog directly, or follow me over on Twitter – @GavinsTurtle. That way you can be kept updated on when I post a new review. Thank you for taking the time to read my writing, it truly does mean so much to me!