TIFF 2016 Review | ‘Nocturnal Animals’ Demands Further Study

Fashion designer Tom Ford would have been forgiven if the films he directed were lavish productions and little more, but with 2009’s A Single Man and his latest, Nocturnal Animals, he has blown our expectations out of the water and shot them in the face. These are films that are gorgeously presented, certainly, but also impressively complicated and richly textured. A Single Man is one of the best character studies in recent memory, a melancholy ode to the loneliness of a homosexual college professor in 1962, struggling with the recent suicide of his partner. And Nocturnal Animals is a fucked up NeverEnding Story fueled by bitterness and pain.

I’m not knocking it. The pleasure you get out of watching Nocturnal Animals might vary from person to person, but Tom Ford has some undeniably interesting ideas to explore in his latest film. On the surface, it’s the story of a woman reading a book, but what she gets out of the novel is wholly different than anything you or I might interpret on our own. Try to imagine what it must have been like for Alma Reville to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s creepy obsessions play out in Vertigo and you might have some idea of what’s in store for you in Nocturnal Animals.

Amy Adams plays Susan, an art gallery owner who has lost her passion for her work, and whose marriage to a wealthy executive named Hutton, played by Armie Hammer, is similarly icy. A package arrives from her ex-husband, Tony, containing a novel that – we realize – she never thought he’d ever be able to write. As Hutton absconds on a business trip, Susan is left alone in their giant, sparse house to crack open Tony’s opus and reconsider all that happened between them.

Focus Features

Focus Features

The novel, also called Nocturnal Animals, is a brutal thriller about a family man named Edward whose wife and daughter – both of whom look suspiciously like Susan – are abducted, raped and murdered. Edward is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who also plays Tony in Susan’s flashbacks. He suffers unthinkable torment, racked with guilt and remorse and a traumatic confirmation of his own personal weakness. A situation unfolds that will allow him to find revenge if he’s strong enough to take it.

Audiences often have a sneaking suspicion that every work of art speaks volumes about the artist who crafted it. Not every artist agrees but with Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford seems to be confirming this idea, that with the right glossary you can decipher the life and strife of any storyteller. All you have to do is know them well enough, and be responsible for their heartache, and you no longer even have to read between the lines. Subtext becomes text, and life and art become more-or-less indistinguishable.

Focus Features

Focus Features

The detail with which the metaphor plays out is impressive and nuanced and ultimately very sad. Nocturnal Animals is nothing if not engrossing, even if the individual pieces may not seem all that remarkable on their own. Susan’s life is almost unbearably shallow, and her story is depressingly thin. We don’t learn terribly much about Tony that we don’t glean from his novel, but although his novel may be a pained expression of a wounded soul, it’s not a terribly remarkable revenge thriller on its own. It’s strikingly acted, certainly, but unless Tony’s prose is spectacular (we don’t really hear it read out loud) it’s hard to imagine the novel of Nocturnal Animals being hailed as a literary classic.

What really matters is that these two pieces combine to tell a larger story, and once that story is finally revealed in all of its layers, it makes sense, it has a deeper meaning, but it might not be terribly satisfying. “That’s life,” I can practically hear Nocturnal Animals telling me, but without giving anything away, I suspect it’s only life from one perspective. Tom Ford’s film eventually seems to pick a side, like a mutual friend choosing which spouse to unfriend on Facebook after the divorce, and the decision ultimately leaves the otherwise nuanced narrative feeling lopsided and more than a little pithy.

Nocturnal Animals is a work of impressive complexity, finely acted and intelligently conceived. Its emotions are genuine and uncomfortable. That it doesn’t come together as perfectly as, perhaps, it could have is a disappointment but life is full of disappointments and we soldier on anyway and make the most of what we have. And what we have here is an utterly fascinating motion picture, even with all of its deficiencies, that ventures deep into the difficult wilds of the artistic experience and has the audacity to be vicious once it gets there.

Thirteen Must-See Films at TIFF 2016:

Top Photo: Focus Features

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most CravedRapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.