Tom Ford’s sophomore film, Nocturnal Animals, is a two-for-one deal. Movie A stars Amy Adams as Susan, a sad, lonely person, being miserable in sad, lonely rooms. Movie B stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Tony, a man bent on revenge in the high desert of West Texas. The sum total of Nocturnal Animals is a high-wire act, balancing on the line between these two stories which grows ever thinner and more indistinct until they are no longer separate but a writhing whole pinned together by the destructive force of revenge. With Nocturnal Animals, Ford seals his place as not only a great designer and artist but also one of the great contemporary filmmakers.
Adapted by Ford from the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, Animals is—well I hate using words like “masterpiece” but f*ck it, it’s a masterpiece. I could write an entire essay on Susan’s lipstick, so important are the smallest details, and things that seem odd or out of place at the beginning become important points of reference and connective tissue later in the film. For instance, casting Isla Fisher in the revenge thriller story at first seems like a quirk but becomes incredibly important thematically and narratively. In fact, I think it’s one of the most fun, brilliant things Ford does with this film.
This is nose-to-tail filmmaking, with no aspect unattended or element unused. Everything is relevant, and as gorgeous and bold as the visuals are, every single bit of visual information serves the characters and story. To dismiss Animals as nothing more than beautiful spectacle you would have to watch the film with the sound off and also close your eyes for ten minutes at a time every twenty minutes, because even without sound, the visuals are so dense you can still decipher the story. (The sign of a truly great film is when you don’t need sound to get it.)
But the sound is excellent anyway! The score from Abel Korzeniowski is one of the best I’ve heard here at TIFF so far, and is also one of the best integrated, never overpowering the actors or visual elements, but instead underscoring those elements. Too many filmmakers rely on music to tell us how to feel, but Korzeniowski’s score, as deployed by Ford, is a highlighter for moments that are already working well on their own.
As he did in A Single Man, Ford draws fantastic performances from everyone in the cast. Adams is stellar as Susan, struggling with depression by way of regret, and Gyllenhaal gives a brutally raw performance as Tony and, appearing in the Susan portion as her ex-husband, Edward. Aaron Taylor-Johnson gives a Hall of Fame-level scumbag performance, but Michael Shannon is the standout as a noir-ish detective, Andes. Shannon’s performance leans into being stagey, but he’s playing a character in a novel. He’s playing a character who IS a character, and somehow manages to convey this very concept, and be totally authentic and amusing while doing it.
Ford’s attention to setting, to the precision of details, to the pitch and intonation of actors approaches Kubrick levels of accomplished, but he is not aping anyone else’s style—this film feels entirely its own thing. And what Ford has done here is incredible: He’s made two movies in two totally different genres that are both exceptional examples of those genres. Susan’s story is a psychological drama about how choices escalate until your life has been hijacked by the very thing you wished most to avoid (and Laura Linney’s cameo as Susan’s big-haired Texan mother is EVERYTHING), and Tony’s story is a revenge thriller with Western underpinnings that would make Peckinpah proud. Discovering the way the two stories merge is the joy of watching this film.
Nocturnal Animals is, simply, flawless. There is no part of this film that could be changed or subtracted without damaging the rest of it, and there is nothing that needs to be added. From the completely bonkers opening to the final, chilling image—which only gets more cold and frightening the longer you think about it—this film is perfect. Someday Ford’s career in fashion will be reduced to the thing he did in between making films, like the poet Wallace Stevens being an insurance agent. Nocturnal Animals is a major work from a major filmmaker.