An art gallery owner (Amy Adams) receives the proof of a novel from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn't had contact with in many years. The novel is violent and disturbing, but also mirrors certain aspects of the breakup of their marriage. As she reads it, she begins to recollect the dissolution of her marriage and faces some dark truths about herself.
Tom Ford's directorial debut, A Single Man, was widely praised for its deeply rigorous visuals, production design and cinematography. The story was, for the most part, a secondary addition and was elevated by Colin Firth's magnetic performance. It seems like Ford has learned a huge amount from the experience, as almost all of the shortcoming that A Single Man had have now been rectified in Nocturnal Animals.
From the very get-go, Nocturnal Animals just snaps your attention. The opening title sequence is a truly bizarre scene that transfixes you immediately and then guides you through the rest of the film. Much like David Fincher's adaptation of Gone Girl, Ford understands that it's a trashy story about garbage people - but that it can be made to look decadently beautiful and told smartly. The story within a story angle - Adams' character is reading a novel sent to her by her estranged ex-husband whilst her second marriage to Armie Hammer is dissolving - is nothing new, of course. However, it's the way in which Ford expertly uses colour, music and edits to blend the two together and rip them apart that makes it a joy to watch.
Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as the two husbands - the one to Amy Adams and the one in his novel - is a fascinating one. They're both essentially the same person, however in the fictionalised version of his character, it's more clear that he is a genuinely weak person who almost seems to allow his family to be carried off into the night by an almost feral Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Karl Glusman. Moreover, the fact that we never see him in real-time, i.e. as Amy Adams reads the novel, is telling. We only see him from either a fictionalised version of himself or the one that Adams' character remembers. Adams continues to have one of the best years in recent film history. Between this and Arrival, it's clear that Adams can easily command a film whilst making it look effortless. Her counterpart in the novel, Isla Fisher, doesn't have much in the way of screentime, but it's enough for someone to finally acknowledge that they could in fact be related to one another. Michael Shannon plays a hardened West Texan cop in the novel who's sent to help with the investigation, and is by all accounts having the best time playing this character. He's all intense stares and minimalist, abrupt dialogue that speaks to perhaps what Gyllenhaal's character wanted or should have been. There's an interesting twist in his character that speaks more to masculinity that anything else, and plays brilliantly into the use of allegory throughout the film.
At its core, Nocturnal Animals is a film about fiction and storytelling itself. The most powerful stories are the ones we tell ourselves in order to sleep at night, and confronting reality is never easy. Adams' character is denying the fact that her second husband is cheating on her, that her gallery is failing and she's going broke and telling herself that it'll all work out in the end - even though reality says otherwise. The same goes for how her character's marriage ended or the fact that almost nobody in her current circle of friends knew that she was previously married. The juxtaposition between reality and fiction in the context of the film lies elegantly over the lush art direction, cinematography and music. We know it's fake, we know that it's completely unrealistic, we know that underneath the surface of it that there's nothing there, but we're enjoying it nonetheless because we love a good story.
In all, Nocturnal Animals is a sumptuous and decadently told story that features a strong central performance by Gyllenhaal, Adams and Shannon with some of the most impressive cinematography and production design of the past ten years.