I have an affinity for the eccentric, especially the cinematic variety. Left of center is more than my favorite place to sit in a movie theater. It’s the creative compass I wish more filmmakers would follow. Thankfully among more standard fare like “Allied,” “Moana” and the new “Star Wars” are more left-of-center offerings like “Nocturnal Animals,” the new weird film from Tom Ford. “Weird” isn’t a word I use lightly. Weird is reserved for special films that manage to do something unconventional or tell a maddeningly obtuse story—unapologetic works of art that take viewers somewhere they haven’t been before. “Nocturnal Animals” does all this and more.
Susan (Amy Adams) is a middle-aged art-gallery owner in a rapidly deteriorating second marriage. Her husband (Armie Hammer) is having financial troubles, putting their garish life of opulence in jeopardy. He’s also cheating on her, which only further calcifies her growing level of discontent with this cruel, unforgiving world. I would say the movie starts like a Harold Pinter play, if not for a credit sequence that is both hypnotic and terrible in a way I never thought possible. Susan is reminded of her first marriage thanks to a timely delivery: a manuscript for his latest novel.
She pours herself into his book, a super-depressing tale of Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), a loving father driving his wife and daughter through West Texas where they are confronted by a carload of rape-crazy rednecks. It’s like a gang of clones made from DNA of the villains of “Deliverance” and the protagonists of “Hell or High Water.” After running Tony and his family off the road, the women are kidnapped and Tony is left for dead.
There’s an interesting structure to “Nocturnal Animals.” It moves back and forth between Susan’s life, the content of the book told in episodic snippets, and flashbacks to her relationship with the book’s author (also played by Gyllenhaal). Director Tom Ford never spends too much time on one of the interlocking stories before moving into another. It helps create an interesting narrative and gives viewers a lot to ponder as they are forced to question the meaning of the book, what it means to Susan, and how exactly it connects to her relationship with her first husband/author.
The best parts of “Nocturnal Animals” come from the performances—most notably from Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon, who shows up as an intense detective in the novel trying to find out who is responsible for the criminal acts perpetrated against Tony’s family. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a strange sort of one dimensional antagonist. His creepy redneck is easy to hate, but he sells the absolute gonzo level of aggression the character seems to possess—a backwoods monster that echoes Woody Harrelson’s performance in “Natural Born Killers.”
“Weird” is the most apt adjective to describe the movie and the way its stories weave in and out of one another. Some artistic flourishes Ford engages in feel like the most beautiful, well-performed John Waters film ever made (like if Marlon Brando replaced Divine in “Pink Flamingos”). “Nocturnal Animals” is an interesting anomaly and gives the audience so much to chew on. It’s story feels like someone trying to capture the manic-world building of the Coen brothers, but with a little too much polish.
In spite of a handful of misgivings, I liked “Nocturnal Animals.” It’s nowhere near as good as Ford’s first film, the excellent and heartbreaking “A Single Man.” “Nocturnal Animals” has all the trappings of a sophomore slump; however, it’s still worth watching. As a filmmaker, Tom Ford has a unique point of view and manages to carve out something creatively interesting with very familiar tropes. This is not a typical revenge story, nor is it a conventional relationship story. It’s one of few movies this year I was thinking about well after final credits rolled—something rare these days, when challenging an audience feels like a low priority.
It is the kind of film some will love and some will loathe. And both sides could make a fair argument. Some people will applaud its ambiguity while others will be frustrated to a fault. Anyone who believes a movie’s job is to entertain should go ahead and skip this one. But folks looking for a challenging film to pore over could do a lot worse than “Nocturnal Animals.”