Unrequited love can be the worst thing to happen to someone. People lose themselves when they lose someone. They form unhealthy patterns, sabotage relationships, isolate themselves. It hurts so much to lose someone because we put so much of ourselves into the people we love. That’s the jump, that’s the trust. And when it’s gone, that part of us is lost as well.
But good can come from pain. Some of the best art ever created was the byproduct of fractured love. Pain can also bring perspective. It can make you appreciate what you have, when you have it. This is what Tom Ford’s new film, Nocturnal Animals, is about. It’s about seeking redemption for your pain in a healthy and constructive way, while also violently explaining what that pain did to you.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a hollow shell. She’s vapid, morose, old-money wealthy. She spends her days managing the art gallery she owns, and her evenings promoting it. But at night, when she’s unable to sleep in her sterile home in the Hollywood Hills, her mind drifts. She tries to connect with her jaded husband (Armie Hammer), smiling while she suggests romantic weekend getaways, but her attempts are futile.
Shortly into the film, Susan finds a companion to fill her sleepless nights in the form of a book manuscript. The book, entitled “Nocturnal Animals,” was written by Susan’s ex-husband, Edward, whom she hasn’t spoken to in some time. The manuscript is accompanied by a note from Edward, thanking Susan for inspiring him to write the text. As Susan begins reading, Nocturnal Animals takes on a new life.
Without warning, we cut to Susan’s visual interpretation of the book. This story-within-a-story begins with Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) driving his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher), and their daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), to a weekend home. They’re driving through the night, on barren Texas roads. In an instant, things go very, very wrong. It isn’t fair to describe what Tony and his family endures. To do so would diminish its horror. I will say, without hesitation, that this scene of roadside terror is one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen on film. This has nothing to do with physical violence, as none is shown. The scene takes its time tormenting us. You’re mortified by assuming where it will go. Watching this scene, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. My palms sweated, my heart rate increased. It was as if I was watching the prelude to the rape scene in Deliverance for the first time, or the subway scene in Code Unknown. The scene is so realistic; it could happen to any of us. You’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and your world is forever altered.
Susan slams the manuscript shut, and the scene ends. Holy shit, that’s right, we’re only watching a fake imagining of Edward’s text. And then you remember, all narrative film is fake. Everything is imagined. Exactly.
We soon understand that Edward’s book is a violent metaphor for the emotional pain Susan caused Edward in real life. In remembering this pain, the film takes on yet another storyline, that of Susan’s actual past with Edward, who is also played by Jake Gyllenhaal. We see Susan and Edward as young, idealistic lovers. Susan battles her mother (Laura Linney in a delicious cameo) over Edward. Mom thinks he isn’t fit for Susan’s lifestyle. Susan disagrees. Time clearly proves momma was right.
The duration of Nocturnal Animals is spent unpacking these three narratives. The fictional plot (involving Tony and his family) is the most compelling, because it contains the heightened sensationalism we’re used to seeing in movies. Susan’s past and present storylines are more melancholic and cold, which is to say, more true to her life.
Because I described a moment of such great terror from Edward’s book, it’s important to note that once that scene is done, the fictional portion of Nocturnal Animals becomes unexpectedly entertaining. Much of this is credited to Michael Shannon’s hilarious turn as Texas lawman, Bobby Andes. The icy stares, the flat delivery – Ford even introduces him with an applause-worthy Hero Shot straight out of a ‘50s western. It’s some of Shannon’s best work, the type of role only he could pull off.
Everything in Nocturnal Animals continually shifts to fit the present tone. Joan Sobel’s nonlinear editing is essential to the film’s success. It’s a delicate foundation; remove or reorder any of the scenes, and the entire film could give out. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography (captured entirely on 35mm film) subtly heightens each portion of the movie –from the callous detachment of Susan’s banal Los Angeles life, to the warm manic energy of the Texas fictional storyline. And Abel Korzeniowski’s score is as effective when it goes big (as it does in the unforgettable opening credits sequence) or small. Every aspect of the film helps paint a painfully real depiction of lost love.