‘Nocturnal Animals’ interweaves Western, melodrama genre for stylistic brilliance

"Nocturnal Animals" | Focus Features Grade: A
Derrick Morton/Focus Features/Courtesy
"Nocturnal Animals" | Focus Features
Grade: A

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In Tom Ford’s new film “Nocturnal Animals” — much like its predecessor “A Single Man” — the fashion-designer-turned-director proves that his substance is indistinguishable from his style. But his latest film goes even further. “Nocturnal Animals” is at once a riveting, seemingly cliched Western while also being a tale of love and loss — only furthering that characteristic as audiences will lose sleep over dissecting the rich story even after they’ve left the theater.

The story of the film is not one that can be discussed easily without hinting at too much. But without giving too much away, “Nocturnal Animals” picks up with wealthy gallery artist Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) as she receives a manuscript of a novel from her ex-husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) that was inspired by the events that led to their divorce.

As she becomes drawn into the world Tony has created, the audience is shown a visualization of Tony’s book, involving a husband (also played by Gyllenhaal), his wife (Isla Fisher) and their daughter encountering a group of hoodlums late at night who terrorize the family. Susan sees the metaphor of these events as they relate to Tony, which leads her to contemplate her own guilt in her past marriage with him and begin to reconcile her past, present and future.

Both Susan’s everyday life as well as the visualization of the novel have surprisingly equal screen time. Yet, because the symbolic proportions of the novel are set early on, Ford is allowed to play with the expectations of his audience — an example being Ford’s insistence on telling the novel aspect of the story as a brutal Western noir set in the dry and barren west Texas.

As for the present-day Susan, her story is told as a melodrama in the vein of notorious 1950s melodrama director Douglas Sirk, with vibrant color schemes and expensive costumes that harken back to the technicolor melodramas of the ‘50s while showing off the rich decadence of Susan’s life in the Los Angeles art world.

Even before “A Single Man,” there was no concern about Ford’s style. But “Nocturnal Animals” is where he truly cements himself as a master of the technical. Introducing a third storyline that tracks Susan and Tony’s relationship leading to the divorce — adding the genre of romance — Ford balances and interweaves the three narratives and genres seamlessly as each running plotline leads into the other with substantial symbolic effect. While most directors would have crumbled under the task, Ford successfully creates a film that exceeds the boundaries of singular genre.

The effect that comes out of this construction is a meta commentary on film and literature and our reception of the two mediums. “Nocturnal Animals” brilliantly reflects the ways in which writers translate realistic and regular problems into these massively dramatic and poetically symbolic stories. It also shows us — the audience — ourselves. Susan reacts to Tony’s narrative in the ways that we react to cinema, making sense of and relating to such fictional drama through the smallest of real detail.

The performances only solidifies “Nocturnal Animals” as a brilliant film. Though Ford plays on the tropes of Western narrative, that storyline almost works on its own due entirely to the performances of Jake Gyllenhaal as the fictional version of the husband and of Michael Shannon as a rough sheriff inhabiting this novelization. Gyllenhaal channels a naked brokenness in the fluctuation of his eyes from soft and angry as well as of his voice from quivering and booming — leading to an effect that truly communicates and correlates the pain to Gyllenhaal’s real character.

And Shannon, whose character could’ve been one-noted or too eccentric, offers perhaps the most hilarious performance of the year through his perfect deadpan delivery and the comical blankness in his face despite whatever terror presents itself to him. It’s work that should earn him at least an Oscar nomination.

With Amy Adams, who is having herself quite a year between this and her equally excellent performance in “Arrival,” also excelling in a more quiet role, “Nocturnal Animals” is allowed to hit on all levels — beautiful technical production, a top notch ensemble and dense meaning created by a masterful, complex narrative. We might never again see a film that can validly be called multiple genres at the same time — this one being a Western, a melodrama, a romance and a thriller — but it makes sense that it came from the sumptuous mind of Tom Ford.

Levi Hill is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].
Kyle Kizu covers film. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @kyle_kizu.