Nocturnal Animals intrigues with nontraditional story structure
When fashion designer Tom Ford announced he was going to direct a movie in the late 2000s, it was easy to dismiss it as a vanity project. But then the film, A Single Man, came out to almost universal acclaim, earning Colin Firth a Best Actor Oscar nomination in the process.
Seven years later, Ford has finally delivered his follow-up film, Nocturnal Animals. In it, Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, an art gallery director in an unhappy marriage with businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer). After receiving a manuscript titled Nocturnal Animals from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), the process of reading it takes her down a rabbit hole of emotions.
The vast majority of the film actually shows the story inside the book, in which Tony (also Gyllenhaal), his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher), and his daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), are accosted on a road trip. Three men, led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), force them off the road and kidnap the two women. Tony spends the rest of the story trying to track down the men, with the help of police officer Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).
The film also includes flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s time together, making it clear that the book is an allegorical retelling of their relationship. What’s curious is that the story in the book winds up being much more thrilling and suspenseful than the more contemplative “main” story. The two are almost polar opposites, in fact, but Ford understands this, purposefully making jarring transitions from one to the other to up the intrigue.
Telling a story within another story is not a new device, but Ford’s use of it feels fresh, especially in the way he connects the two. Not every moment works, but enough of them do to keep the movie gripping throughout. The ultimate payoff in both stories may not be expected, but considering the unusual way in which the film is put together, they work in a strange way as well.
One element that is hard to defend is the opening credits scene, in which a series of obese, fully naked women dance around. It’s an eye-opening, attention-grabbing sequence that Ford has said is “a celebration of the beauty of their bodies.” Still, its relation to the film as a whole is minimal and there seems to be no real point to its inclusion.
Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon, and Taylor-Johnson all deliver great performances in roles that require much different things. Adams is a quiet force in her reactions to what she is reading — rarely has someone been more compelling without saying a word. The men get to be a lot more expressive with their emotions, complementing Adams in all the right ways.
Though not the success that A Single Man was, Nocturnal Animals is full of absorbing moments and performances. Let’s hope Ford doesn’t wait another seven years to bring us his next vision.