Sometimes, the credits finish rolling and you still just don’t have it in yourself to leave. You’re not ready to leave this dizzying feeling you’ve been wrapped up in, not ready to head back into your own actuality. The screen had gone black, there were no more credits to roll, yet I still took a few moments before finding it in myself to get up and leave. In 2009, famed designer Tom Ford came out of nowhere with a stunning directorial debut in A Single Man, a devastating, beautiful work. Seven long years later, we finally have his follow-up, and it confirms he’s an exquisite, singular visionary when it comes to film. It’s clear in the first frames of Nocturnal Animals that this guy has tapped into something we haven’t. It’s been a long seven years since his last work, and it’s been worth the wait. Nocturnal Animals is a tense, aching, violent work of art.
Nocturnal Animals is a tale within a tale, a coalescence of our own realities and the realities that we script for ourselves. Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner gets a to-be-published manuscript from her ex-husband she hasn’t seen in years, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). In the novel, titled “Nocturnal Animal -” dedicated to Susan – husband and father Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) is on a road trip with his wife and daughter when they are attacked by vicious men led by a young man named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who brutally kills Hastings’ family. Weathered detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) heads up the investigation and teams up with Tony to exact revenge.
There are few performers as captivating to watch sit still as Amy Adams. Entire passages of the film are devoted to her staring out windows, into the camera, or into nothing – and it’s somehow incredibly compelling. I’m not sure that kind of screen presence can be taught. When the film begins, she’s detached from her own reality, she plays scenes as if she’s a ghost walking through her own life. She’s haunted by something, out of touch in scenes that play out with a Lynchian fashion. It’s a performance Adams will be remembered for, among many in her career.
Jake Gyllenhaal gives a raw performance both as Tony and as Edward. You can see the aspects that Edward regrets about himself the most in Tony through Gyllenhaal. Edward and Tony are both examinations of masculinity under duress, a self-perceived damnation of male weakness that haunts both characters that Gyllenhaal sorrowfully embodies. Michael Shannon, one of America’s great thespians, delivers a nuanced, hardened performance, a highlight in a career full of them. Andes is a detective who has seen too much unpunished in his lifetime, yet still finds it in himself to get up every day and try to make his own world right. At times, he’s bizarrely funny, his matter-of-fact unfazed demeanor clashes with this bleak, pulpy and overly dramatic storyline. But still, he’s crumbling underneath, and Shannon gives brief, subtle glimpses into his psyche through the simplicity of how he carries himself. On a personal note, it’s a great joy to see two of my favorite working actors on screen together like this.
This is Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s best role to date. For a few years now, Hollywood has been trying to make him their cardboard cutout leading man, but he’s just not that. He’s one of those character actors trapped in a leading man’s body, and excels on the outskirts of films rather than the center. Taylor-Johnson is menacingly unpredictable as Ray, you don’t know where the scene could go when he’s there, and that’s a scary prospect. Brief, quality turns from Laura Linney, Armie Hammer, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough and Isla Fisher round out this top-notch ensemble.
The scene in which Tony and Ray initially clash on the highway is a master exercise in the fluctuation of tension throughout a scene. The scene goes on for about ten minutes at a slow burn that boils before you can prepare yourself. With each exchange of dialogue, each movement, each look, the tone of the scene shifts under our feet. Opportunities to dissolve hostility present themselves only to crumble between an inevitable cruelty. It’s a nightmare, and one vividly created by Ford.
Seamus McGarvey does his best work in a minute, making beauty with Ford out of the profane. The pain of failed loves aches all over the imagery of his shots. The Texas landscapes are as unforgiving and cold as the posh interiors of Los Angeles high society. Abel Korzeniowski reteams with Ford to create another aching score. Korzeniowski’s strings are the very same that line our hearts, crafting compositions that are altogether grand, lush and lonely.
Ford has crafted a wondrous masterpiece of emotion and hurt, notching two incredible films on his directorial belt. Nocturnal Animals, through its violence and isolation, is a reverie for past relationships and romances. With such history with another person, as much love is there, there is just as much pain and turmoil. Nocturnal Animals is a work without closure, as are the stories of our former loves.