This is a film that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of upon arrival; I’ve seen Tom Ford’s only other foray into directing, A Single Man, and remember it being beautifully shot but it made little other mark on my memory and I can hardly recall what actually happened in it. Much like that film, Nocturnal Animal‘s greatest asset is its design: it features bold artwork (I cannot recall any other films that prominently feature a Damien Hirst piece), stunning costumes and expansive, beautiful cinematography. In a technical manner, Nocturnal Animals is quite accomplished and promising for the development of an intricate Tom Ford aesthetic as he further expresses himself through film. Ford is well aware of the expectations cultivated when a designer turns to film, and it’s easy to suggest that he more than satisfies what an audience aware of his brand would visually expect.
As a film, however, Nocturnal Animals is a bit of a mess. The narrative conceit itself is encouraging territory: the unhappily married art gallery owner Susan receives the titular novel in the mail from novelist ex-husband Tom. (SPOILERS) The film quickly splinters off into two directions, in one part the viewer is treated to the novel’s material, in which Tony Hastings seeks revenge after the rape and murder of his wife and daughter by a group of local hooligans. This is the more viscerally (and visually) rewarding part of the film; I can’t think of many action scenes as affective as the one in which Tony and his family are chased and forced off the road. It is a simple, yet dark, revenge story in which Tony must develop into the prototypical male action figure in order to overcome his tragic past, reminiscent of The Last House on the Left (Craven, 1972). As a personal cinematic experience, I can attest that this story works. Thematically, it’s a bit more uneasy that the rape and death of Tony’s wife and daughter are used in order for him to develop into a strong man.
Perhaps that is more reflective, however, of the real world story. In this thread, the audience slowly sees the deterioration of Tom and Susan’s marriage, caused partially by the fact that she does not believe in his future as a writer, and escalated when he catches her aborting his child without telling him. The are two areas of this portion that don’t work: it’s doesn’t ever really synthesize in any meaningful manner with the story-within-a-story, and it comes across as a bit problematic in its thematic content as well. It is more than a little troubling that the male character, Tom, has to save her from a troubled marriage that she has no conviction to leave before his guidance (through the novel), but the fact that he shares his pain and revenge on her for taking autonomy and making a choice about her body, that doesn’t quite sit well either in retrospect. In an interview the cinema screened after the film, Tom Ford noted that this novel is giving her a sort of gift through pain, but even that reading comes across as more than regressive. On a personal level, I’ve noticed that the more I dissect and analyze Nocturnal Animal‘s content, the worse it seems. It’s a film that is beautiful, but really doesn’t reward prolonged thought.
The one area of the film I am interested in is the double casting of Jake Gyllenhaal. At one point, Susan tells Tom that he has to stop writing about himself in order to further his career, yet as she reads the book the protagonist is still portrayed by her ex husband. On one level, this suggests that the author and his work can never be separate (not a profound notion, but a notion nonetheless). Inserting him in the story also allows Susan to envision him becoming more the man it is inferred that she wanted him to be during their ill fated marriage as well. That opens up a world of discussion about gender roles-but it’s one the film never fully explores in a deep manner.