The opening credits for "Nocturnal Animals" let the audience know exactly what they're getting into. Slow motion shots of morbidly obese women grinding with American flags and sparklers as director (and designer) Tom Ford's camera lingers on their eyes, pouty lips and massive flesh. Within seconds, my jaw dropped and remained that way for the next two hours.
There are three intertwining narratives here, clawing at each other to be the dominant story. Susan (Amy Adams) is an unhappy, rich gallery owner whose husband is having an affair. Her estranged ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her the manuscript for his soon-to-be-published novel, "Nocturnal Creatures," which is dedicated to her.
The second story reenacts the novel as Susan reads it. It follows a married couple and their teenage daughter driving across West Texas when they're run off the road by some evil rednecks. The bulk of the story deals with the husband teaming up with a Texas lawman (Michael Shannon) to get revenge on the men that destroyed his world.
The third narrative shows flashbacks of Susan and Edward when they were happy together and what eventually led them to divorce. This segment is heartbreaking and creates the thematic weight for everything that comes later.
Tom Ford takes post-modern filmmaking and applies it to three completely different genres of film, combining them all for an absolutely spellbinding narrative. The section that follows Susan as she reads the novel is cold and clinical, with a backdrop of polished gates and lonely L.A. mansions. The revenge story is grimy and sweaty with a genuine Texas Noir heartbeat that feels like the best of Joe R. Lansdale meets "Hell or High Water." The flashbacks are warmly lit with deep close-ups on faces of our central couple when there was still hope left in their eyes.
"Nocturnal Animals" is not an easy film to watch. The segment where the family is tormented by the rednecks on a lonely Texas highway is almost unbearably tense and horrifying. The worst thing you could imagine happening comes to pass and, even though you see it coming from miles away (just like the family does with the headlights of their attackers), it's still deeply unsettling to witness.
There is a cynicism so deeply rooted into the DNA of "Nocturnal Animals" that the film plays like Ford working out some demons of his own. Susan was unhappy when she was married to the sensitive novelist and she's still deeply depressed living in her modern L.A. mansion with her emotionally distant husband. Edward's novel might be a Texas rape-revenge thriller, but it's really just him unpacking his marriage to Susan. Films don't need to be populated by "happy" characters, but what makes "Nocturnal Animals" so emotionally violent is that no one seems built for something better on the horizon; there's only despair and an eventual slide into a lonely end.
Ford pulls layered and nuanced work out of his actors while showing a narrative skill that's remarkable for a sophomore effort. There's a lot happening in "Nocturnal Animals" that will take several viewings to really understand and process. One thing I do know is that the film pinned me to my seat for two straight hours and would not let me look away. Even when the film is bouncing between deeply distressing, uncomfortably bleak and emotionally exhausting, it always remains an unforgettable work of art.
Dir. Tom Ford
Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX, Sisters Movie House