For a filmmaker who’s more commonly known as a fashion industry demigod, Tom Ford, who made his directorial debut with 2009’s “A Single Man,” has returned after several years with his neo-noir, quasi-western sophomore outing “Nocturnal Animals.” Such a hiatus makes sense, considering Ford is a man of meticulous craft, made evident by how achingly precise “Animals” is.
Opening with one of the most arresting and disquieting credit sequences I’ve ever seen, Ford makes it clear from the beginning: like it or not, viewers are in for auteurism, the end product being a captivating, if flawed, exercise in experimental storytelling.
Living among the Los Angeles’ metropolitan upper-class, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a failed artist turned art gallery curator who is no longer seduced by the illusory spell of the more vacuous aspects of the bourgeois lifestyle. This includes an insatiable appetite to increase status and wealth, self-adulation and attending pompous art shows where the members openly acknowledge that their work is a largely meaningless effort to further distract themselves from the meaninglessness that is their lives.
Susan is married to a big-suit serial cheater (Armie Hammer), and the relationship’s based on financial security rather than romance. When he flies out on business, Susan receives a novel manuscript from her first husband, Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), a writer and creative-type who she unjustly abandoned 20-some years ago.
“I did something horrible to him,” she states in fear, as the novel, a violent tale of murder and revenge set in West Texas, could be interpreted as a thinly veiled threat. From there, the film transitions back and forth between Susan’s affluent LA life and the gritty world of Tony’s novel, suggesting that they may be metaphorically linked.
Film noir, a genre of film produced most prominently from the early 1940s to the late 1950s, which was most commonly shot in black-and-white and featured chain-smoking leading men inhabiting seedy bars, dastardly women, pitch black night skies and downer endings, is beginning to have a comeback recently. It seems logical, given our current national identity crisis, as noirs of the past were reflective of a troubled political climate.
Heavily inspired by Nietzschean themes, noirs showed the world for how it was, rather than what people believed it to be. They depicted loners, losers and anti-heroes with shattered ideals looking for love in all the wrong places and often meeting a cruelly rotten end. “Nocturnal Animals” is a film that plays to that tradition in all the best ways.
Ford’s film, dipped in a coating of Lynchian surrealism, is a cold and calculated story of wounded manhood, betrayal and all the ways we hurt and inflict pain on each other—often unintentionally. The strength of the film lies in the story within the story, the Texas murder plot based on Tony’s novel manuscript. Here we have Michael Shannon as a detective with nothing to lose who looks like he stepped right out of an Orson Welles film. Shannon and Gyllenhall hunt down a few psychopathic locals who carry out a crime, which the film suggest is based around class animosity, as much as it is a random night attack.
And, oh man, is this a soul-crushing film. Ford doesn’t just intend to rip the viewer’s heart out; he wants to stomp all over it. Why that is, I’m not so sure, but one can tell he’s resentful. Possibly, like Gyllenhaal’s character in the film, he was deceived by a former lover and is therefore communicating his bitterness and pain by way of cryptogram.
Isn’t anonymously sending creepy cryptograms to former exes that did us wrong everyone’s favorite pastime? I jest. Not really. The film certainly has its fair share of vague symbolism that I’ve yet to interpret. Furthermore, Ford may very well be projecting his own emotional insecurities from some sort of past relationship turmoil, resulting in some, admittedly valid, accusations of vindictive misogyny. But does that make the film any less interesting? Does it make it any less worthy of analysis? Not to me it doesn’t.
The two characters Gyllenhaal plays in “Nocturnal Animals” are constantly having their manhood undermined. Both Tony and the novel’s character Edward Sheffield are effete, weak men who, despite their shortcomings, believe true romance triumphs over power and status. Yet, they’re constantly let down by their reality. A reality, of which Susan, to her own regret, has given herself over to due to societal expectations, leaving her dead behind the eyes.
This reality is based on cultural power that solely revolves around selfishness, greed and narcissism. But as “Nocturnal Animals” makes clear, it’s sometimes those who are perceived as weak and therefore ridiculed for it, who are capable of pushing the crudest fantasies of revenge into reality.
Rob Gabe is a sixth-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RG770214@wcupa.edu.