Revered fashion designer Tom Ford made an impressive directing debut with 2009’s A Single Man, an elegant portrait of a lonely gay university professor living in ’60s California. His second film as writer-director, adapted from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony And Susan, is an equally stylish but far more complex thriller that soon becomes a haunting story-within-a-story.
We meet LA art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) as she receives a pre-release copy of Nocturnal Animals, a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). With her current husband distracted and awayon business, Susan becomes engrossed in the novel, which Edward has unexpectedly dedicated to her. As she reads, we see her visualisation of its violent, revenge-driven story involving Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal – because Susan sees her ex-husband in the novel’s hero) and a maverick Texan cop (Michael Shannon) helping him secure justice for his family.
Although the novel’s gritty Texan setting bears no relation to Susan’s luxe LA life, she begins to realise that Edward hasn’t dedicated Nocturnal Animals to her out of simple nostalgic affection. As we see the novel’s brutal story unfold, and Susan’s harrowed reactions to it, Ford also offers us flashback scenes showing key moments in Susan and Edward’s doomed romance. A brilliantly clipped encounter between Susan and her overbearing mother (Love Actually’s Laura Linney) later proves to be very revealing indeed. Nocturnal Animals could easily have become a confusing jumble of competing narratives, but Ford’s controlled touch keeps it streamlined: we’re invested throughout in both Tony’s quest for revenge and Susan’s visceral response to it. Gyllenhaal is convincing as both boyishly optimistic Edward and battle-hardened Tony, but the film is anchored by a sensitive and compelling performance from Adams, whose natural warmth makes Susan sympathetic even when we learn she has behaved cruelly. Aside from the odd jarring moment, including a provocative opening sequence that belongs in a different film, Nocturnal Animals is a gripping and remarkably accomplished piece of storytelling. Ford’s day job obviously keeps him busy, but on this evidence he should definitely direct more often.