Nocturnal Animals

“Nocturnal Animals,” director Tom Ford’s second film, begins with the filmmaker playfully tickling the audience and pushing their buttons. By the time the names of the actors and production team have finished appearing and the introductory moments have faded, the audience may feel they’re in for a big goof. Actually, what develops isn’t a comedy or even a satire of its art world setting. Ford has crafted something similar to “No Country For Old Men” and manipulates his audience as thoroughly as Alfred Hitchcock once did.

Amy Adams stars as Susan, an art dealer who receives a manuscript from Tony, her ex (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). The book is titled “Nocturnal Animals” and is dedicated to Susan. She reads the book alone in her expensive home and we witness Tony’s disturbing tale as it unfolds in her mind’s eye. The story-within-the-dilm is about a husband named Edward (also played by Gyllenhaal) who is driving his wife (played by Isla Fisher) and daughter (played by Ellie Bamber) on a long distance road trip. Their night drive down a vast Texas highway and through miles of empty terrain is initially pleasant, until they encounter a very bad man named Ray Marcus (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson). As Susan turns the pages, the audience shares her engrossment with the novel, which takes unexpected and horrifying turns.

Some movies are so strong, they feel like they’re happening to you as you watch them. Your sense of distance from what’s happening on the screen becomes fuzzy and you find yourself responding directly to what’s happening on screen. It can be an internal, emotional reaction or an unplanned, brief grunt of “awww, no…” or something more colorful. This portion of the film, Tony’s nightmarish tale, had that effect on me. The tension in the highway scene alone is almost unbearable.

Although Gyllenhaal briefly (and movingly) plays Tony, Adams’ ex, it’s his performance as Edward the motorist that will resonate the most. Edward’s journey is dread-inducing and taps directly into the core idea here. We watch Edward and wonder what we’d do if we were in his shoes. This portion of the movie reminded me a great deal of George Sluzier’s “The Vanishing” and asks us to consider if Edward is “weak” for his actions.

Ford’s film is a brilliant study of contrasts from the very first scene. I won’t describe it but the much discussed, fairly outrageous opening credits sequence is Ford establishing a theme as much as he’s pushing our buttons. Everything that follows is, likewise, an ongoing means of variation. Adams’ Susan lives in a chic, art-drenched, glossy world that she (mostly) controls. Her husband (a perfectly cast Armie Hammer) is clearly up to no good but the way Susan behaves towards her husband’s deceptions suggests either denial or a sad understanding between them. The world of Tony’s novel is the opposite: a harsh, desolate and lawless modern western landscape.

Characters mirror one another in appearance (note the similarity between Adams and Fisher), and theĀ  imagery creates telling, wordless portraits for the characters and their thoughts. As in Ford’s extraordinary film debut, “A Single Man,” he is once again asking what it means to be a man and how an artist struggles with being “weak” in a masculine world. With its dark journey into badlands, men driven by obsession and the themes of revenge and lies, it brings to mind Hitchcock as well as David Lynch and the Coen Brothers.

Adams shows us the heart beneath her cold, not easily likeable character and Gyllenhaal invests mightily in an equally challenging part. Michael Shannon is excellent in a rich character role and Taylor-Johnson has never been better, and unforgettably embodies evil as a walking, swaggering bully.

While “Nocturnal Animals” is certainly a “thinker,” it’s also suspenseful, ravishing to look at and always entertaining. You won’t notice at first how much it has on its mind. A week later, many scenes are still dancing in my mind as much as Tony’s novel haunts Susan.

Some will find the conclusion frustrating and, indeed, it is frustrating. I wanted more from the final scene but, in hindsight, it connects to that lingering question that is brought up early on: if a man can’t defend himself or act cruel, is it a sign of weakness? Is being a man about making the right choice or behaving the way men are expected to? There is filmmaking genius in Ford’s risky, wrenching film, which is among the best of 2016.

originally published in Maui Time Weekly