Typically, Hollywood movies celebrate weddings as a big, positive climax in a film’s plot line or even the ultimate goal of its protagonists. Reality, however, can be something quite different. There’s a reason why this sort of milestone is seen as an achievement worthy of a flick’s finale. It’s an easy plot device to tie up a love story. However, fashion designer cum film director Tom Ford has little interest in such facile filmmaking. With his second movie, Nocturnal Animals, Ford examines the end of a marriage to bring both the beauty and cruelty that comes with supposed love eternal to vivid life.
Based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, Nocturnal Animals follows a successful if disillusioned Los Angeles art gallerist (Amy Adams) who finds herself reflecting on a past life when she receives a package from her ex-husband. That package is a galley proof of his novel “Nocturnal Animals,” which he has dedicated to her. Inside is a grim story about a father who takes his wife and grownup daughter on a road trip through Texas, which takes a horrific turn when the family runs into a malicious trio of road hogs.
Many an author will admit to channeling bitterness toward real people by creating fictional characters to vent their anger upon. However, there’s a bit more happening in Nocturnal Animals. Ford’s movie not only unfolds between Susan’s real life world and the fiction on the page where Susan’s surrogate is played by that terrific Adams doppelgänger Isla Fisher. It also features Susan’s memories of time spent with the book’s author Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal who also appears in the dramatization of the book as Tony) in happier times where both take the risk of expressing feelings toward one another to grimmer times where that love has soured under its own weight. Woven together, these three layers of story both distort and enhance a certain reality when those who love each other become close: maintenance of that love can be difficult and uncertain.
The film is edited by Joan Sobel with a cool elegance, matching the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. The flow between Susan’s present, her memories and Edward’s fiction blend potently but clearly stand out as three different narrative strands and never feels confusing. There’s something ingenious in the structure in not only the deftness of flow but in revealing the connections between the varied personas of its characters and the often toxic clash that arises when souls become intimately entwined. Ford’s cinematic iteration of these layers is impressive and acutely heartrending.
Nocturnal Animals is also populated by ancillary characters whose actions act as echo chambers to the film’s theme. From a dying detective (a terrific Michael Shannon), revved up to assist Tony in “justice,” to this rather dark but funny scene where Susan ruins an assistant’s iPhone, who shrugs off the damage by saying, “Don’t worry, a new model comes out next week.” The animals of the road (especially Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo) are at times too pretty to be fearsome, but they are fictions in Susan’s mind, and their looks add a dark layer of romance to a hardly romantic story.
The film also has a melodramatic edge. For instance, Susan’s predictable reaction to the horrors within Edward’s book. Edward’s surrogate is a flawed character carrying an iteration of the weakness Tony seems to have struggled with during his romance with Susan and the disapproving eye of her mother (Laura Linney). Tony’s emotional outbursts on his conflicted quest for revenge may seem over-the-top to some, but again, one has to keep in mind that this story of fiction is told through the filter of Susan’s reading of Edward’s made up narrative, just another layer to a narrative built on layers of conflict. Beyond some of these startling and jarring moments cracking the surfaces of perception lies a brilliant representation of an unromantic but heartbreaking truth: love doesn’t always survive its own flame.
Nocturnal Animals runs 117 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area at AMC Aventura, Regal South Beach, The Gateway 4 in Fort Lauderdale and the Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton. It arrives at O Cinema Miami Beach on Dec. 9.