The final few months of the year always bring with them a slew of films positioned to catch the eye of critics groups, guild members and voters, and Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is no exception to that rule. But while the performances are incredible across the board, the film’s incredibly dense plot and dissatisfying resolution may hinder its award season prospects.
Gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) returns from her latest opening to find a manuscript in her mailbox, an early preview of the latest novel from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). It’s dedicated to her, and accompanied by a letter that thanks her for providing Edward with the strength to complete it – a curious claim, since they’ve not spoken in nearly two decades. As Susan’s current husband (Armie Hammer) is whisked away to the airport for a business excursion, she settles onto the couch and begins to read.
It’s here where Nocturnal Animals offers its most compelling material, as the events of Edward’s novel are dramatized for the audience, opening with Tony (Gyllenhaal) driving the desolate highways of west Texas with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). An encounter with a group of locals devolves into one of the most tension-filled, gut-wrenching cinematic sequences of the year, thanks in no small part to a terrifyingly sadistic performance by Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the trio’s redneck ringleader.
Taken aback by the unexpectedly violent nature of Edward’s novel, Susan finds herself reflecting on their relationship, a storybook romance rooted in adolescence that finally blossomed during graduate school, but was always destined to fail. Ford attempts to balance three separate timelines, as modern-day Susan finds herself drawn deeper into the book, and thus deeper into her memories of a more idyllic time in her life, all while the gritty fictional tale continues to unfold. But only one of these narratives is truly engrossing, and it’s the one we spend the least amount of time with.
If Nocturnal Animals had been focused solely on the story from Edward’s novel, it could easily have surpassed Hell or High Water as one of this year’s best crime stories. But the frequent interruptions to showcase Susan pondering her past mistakes or to draw incredibly obvious parallels between the real-life Edward and his literary counterpart hamper the film’s pacing. It doesn’t take long to establish that Susan is a pretty terrible person that has done some pretty terrible things, but Ford chooses to browbeat the audience with this information until it becomes tiresome. As an audience, we find little reason to empathize with Susan, which makes it all the more difficult to become invested in her emotional journey.
Luckily, Nocturnal Animals boasts a collection of performances that are more than worth the price of admission. Gyllenhall deftly balances his dual role as the sweet, compassionate Edward and the tormented husband and father from the novel, while Taylor-Johnson is guaranteed to make your skin crawl as this year’s most demented and diabolical villain. And it would be a crime not to mention Michael Shannon, hijacking the film as a chain-smoking Texas lawman with a fleeting concern for things like regulation and due process. This guy is an absolute national treasure, and if he showed up in every movie I saw for the rest of the year, I would have zero complaints.
Successfully balancing the film’s complicated three-pronged plot would be an arduous task even for a seasoned veteran, and Ford deserves a commendation for handling it as well as he does. It’s been seven years since his stellar debut with 2009’s A Single Man, and although his sophomore effort may fall short of the high bar set by that film, it’s certainly not for lack of trying.