Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)


Writer/director Tom Ford spins an ambitious tale of existential ennui and vengeance in his excellent follow-up to 2009’s A Single Man.


How far would you go to make yourself whole after being violated?

This is the central question behind Tom Ford’s sophomore writing and directorial effort Nocturnal Animals; a movie full of career defining performances that ambitiously plays with genre and tone like few films have this year.

Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, an established artist in Los Angeles. Her latest exhibition, a commentary on junk culture and the trappings of illusory wealth, has left her unfulfilled and its success is questionable. She turns to her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) for comfort; but Hutton himself is struggling to maintain his illusory appearance of success; he medicates himself with trips to New York for extra-marital dalliances as Susan yearns to try and salvage their relationship. One afternoon, Susan receives a package from her ex-husband Thomas (Jake Gyllenhaal) whom she hasn’t seen in 19 years. In it is a manuscript for a novel he has written entitled Nocturnal Animals; a manuscript entitled by a note entreating Susan to read it and asking for her thoughts as it is much different from what he wrote during their relationship.

It is here that the film becomes its most ambitious and experimental. We are treated to three overlapping narratives. The surface narrative concerns Susan as she reads Nocturnal Animals and how it affects her life; an empty shallow day to day existence. We also see how Susan and Thomas got to this point in an overlapping narrative; how her relationship with Thomas waxed and waned based on money and status.

But it is the third narrative that is the most gripping. In this, we as the audience witness the manuscript of Nocturnal Animals. Here, Gyllenhaal plays the protagonist, a man named Tony Hastings making his way with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Elle Bamber) to Marfa, Texas. They are run off the road by a group of three man lead by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who proceed to intimidate and kidnap the three of them. The events of this kidnapping wear on Tony, who views his weakness as the reason for the events that followed them. Tony befriends the policeman who is in charge of investigating the case, a man named Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), who tries to keep hope alive in Tony that they will find the men responsible for this and that justice will fall on the side of the righteous.

As Susan reads Nocturnal Animals, she is devastated and enraptured by Thomas’ work and sees many parallels to their life echoed in the manuscript. As the story becomes darker and darker, the audience is left to wonder if Thomas’ manuscript, named after his nickname for Susan and dedicated to her in the foreword, isn’t his form of revenge towards Susan.

By far, the most effective and engaging narrative in Nocturnal Animals is the manuscript. The performances that Ford channels out of Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson respectively, are both devastating. Taylor-Johnson has never seemed so menacing and evil on the screen; channeling Cape Fear’s Max Cady (both Mitchum and DeNiro’s incarnations). Michael Shannon gives an Academy Award caliber performance, playing a sheriff at the end of his days trying to make his one last case end the right way, no matter how wrong the path to arrive. Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Tony Hastings grounds this portion as we see his struggle with the meek person he was and the need in him for vengeance that grows. His perceived weakness leaves him paralyzed to move forward, yet he struggles with how far to take his desire for revenge to free himself from grief.

To Ford’s credit, he is able to tie this narrative very closely to Susan’s struggle with her failing marriage and overall sense of ennui. The narrative entailing her shallow and empty life is the film Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon wishes it could have been; rife with on-the-spot commentary about shallow hipsters and plastic surgery abominations. Susan’s art exhibition comes across as very Lynchian in inspiration, with grotesque and slow motion close-ups showing the audience how distorted and empty the need for wealth and fame leaves one.


Nocturnal Animals is one of 2016’s best; a unique and ambitious film that is as grim as Cape Fear and No Country for Old Men, as it is about exploring the languor & longing behind what fame can bring. In its narrative regarding Susan, it echoes David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as Susan sees herself in Tony’s ersatz version of her in his novel (played by Isla Fisher) and remembers the person she could have been with Thomas. A thought-provoking film that lingers on the mind and makes you ask yourself what you value most in life.