The Dark Dreamscape of 'Nocturnal Animals'

A beloved University of Cincinnati professor's novel becomes an edgy, thrilling new movie after his death

Nov 30, 2016 at 9:21 am
click to enlarge Director Tom Ford talks to Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon on the set of Nocturnal Animals. - Photo: Merrick Morton/Focus Features
Photo: Merrick Morton/Focus Features
Director Tom Ford talks to Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon on the set of Nocturnal Animals.

During the second day of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I joined my international critical brethren for what would turn out to be an intriguing double feature, grounded by nuanced performances from five-time Academy Award nominee Amy Adams.

One of those films I saw that day, the second, has already opened in theaters and become a hit — the speculative science-fiction mind-bender Arrival from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. But the first one, Nocturnal Animals, is just beginning to arrive at theaters, and it has an important local connection.

Adams ushered us into the wild with this elegant and cannily constructed movie from American director Tom Ford. It’s a thriller he adapted from the novel Tony and Susan by the late Austin Wright, a distinguished longtime English professor at University of Cincinnati. (Wright died in 2003 at age 80, 10 years after the publication of Tony and Susan.)

click to enlarge Amy Adams on the set of Nocturnal Animals. - Photo: Merrick Morton/Focus Features
Photo: Merrick Morton/Focus Features
Amy Adams on the set of Nocturnal Animals.

Nocturnal Animals already has opened in larger 
cities as part of distributor Focus Features’ slow end-of-year release pattern, designed to build interest in the film for Academy Award nominations. It is scheduled to open in Cincinnati on Dec. 9, although that could change.

Adams was superb in the film as Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner whose ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), has sent her his manuscript for a novel, called Nocturnal Animals, seeking her advice. It is a dark, violent story of a man named Tony, whose family vacation is interrupted when they become victims of a crime. The film, like Wright’s novel, follows both Susan’s story and Tony’s (also played by Gyllenhaal), a parallel construction that plays with the nature of storytelling.

For all the acting excellence on display in Nocturnal Animals, what mattered more was cracking the narrative Rubik’s Cube invented by Wright and elevated by Ford’s precise integration of style and substance. This is the second feature by Ford, already a successful fashion designer when he adapted Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel about a gay man’s life, A Single Man, into a highly acclaimed 2009 film.

click to enlarge Director Tom Ford looking through a camera on the set of Nocturnal Animals. - Photo: Merrick Morton/Focus Features
Photo: Merrick Morton/Focus Features
Director Tom Ford looking through a camera on the set of Nocturnal Animals.

Wright’s novel was published in 1993, the same year he retired after serving 23 years as a UC professor. Tony and Susan was immediately well received in literary circles, if not a bestseller. And it stayed admired. In a 2010 Guardian review of a new edition of the novel, John Harrison noted Wright’s obsession with “the interconnection of real and invented worlds,” rooted in the belief that “in some sense the reader writes the book.” (It has just been republished by Grand Central Publishing in connection with the film’s release.)

Ford declined an interview request from CityBeat, but in a letter to members of the Landmark Theatres Film Club (Landmark is a national chain of art cinemas), he explained his attraction to Tony and Susan:

“I knew then that my next film had to speak to people as well (as A Single Man), but I wanted to explore very different storytelling territory. When I read the late Austin Wright’s novel, I was fascinated by not only the device of a story within a story, but with the idea that a writer (the character of Edward, portrayed powerfully by Jake Gyllenhaal) could communicate such a personal message of love and pain to the reader (the character of Susan, portrayed soulfully by Amy Adams) through a work of fiction.

“When I set out to write the screenplay adaptation, 
I chose to emphasize what for me is the true theme of the story and that is one of loyalty and of finding the people in our lives who are the most important to us and then never letting them go. In fact, this story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when one throws true love away. I wanted to create a film that would drive this point home not just emotionally but viscerally.”

Tony and Susan seems intent on guiding readers through a thrilling and visceral existential dreamscape, where the pleasurable act of reading becomes a decidedly active experience. Wright’s Susan manages a household with children and a dutiful husband (a heart surgeon) with some measure of success until, out of the blue, she receives her ex-husband Edward’s first novel in the mail with a request for her to read it.

Overcoming her concerns about his intentions, Susan settles into the novel, which details the harrowing account of the middle-aged professor Tony and the horrific and nightmarish events that occur while driving with his wife and teenage daughter to their summer retreat in Maine.

Ford’s film subtly adjusts the dynamic between Susan and Edward by fashioning a career for her in the art world, a cold and sterile palace of brittle fantasy. When Edward’s manuscript arrives, it sets up a surreal contrast that profoundly shocks Susan’s meticulous sensibilities.

With echoes of Andy Warhol and David Lynch in the rendering of Susan’s artfully manufactured lifestyle, Ford deftly shifts into the brutal realm of pulp fiction, transplanting his version of Tony onto the wild endless plains of Texas, where we recognize and appreciate the psychopathic machismo of a roving gang (anchored by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s cool sadism) that bedevils his family.

click to enlarge A scene from the set of Nocturnal Animals. - Photo: Merrick Morton/Focus Features
Photo: Merrick Morton/Focus Features
A scene from the set of Nocturnal Animals.

But Ford doesn’t stop there; he interjects another well-tended layer into this conceptual puzzle, weaving in teasing glimpses from Susan and Edward’s original courtship. We see Edward’s passionate desire to give up stability for true art, while Susan — succumbing to the practical advice of her shrewish mother (Laura Linney) — makes a series of choices that set the stage for her estrangement from Edward.

Adams, both in her contemporary portrayal of 
Susan and through the flashbacks, breathes life into fragmented and scattered pieces of this character. 
In addition, she serves as the perfect stand-in for 
the “reader as author” that Wright sought to realize through his fiction. We see the story that is Edward’s Nocturnal Animals as if it is sprung fully from her guilt-racked mind. This section teases us with the idea that her reading is the perfect representation of how we watch film. She experiences visceral thrills from the words that drive her away and prompt her retreat back to the artfully sterile trappings of her life.

Further into his letter to Landmark Theatres patrons, Ford speaks of his fascination with the heightened reality of film noir and the films of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Polanski and Antonioni. “Inspired by the stories of crime and passion that Hollywood made decades ago, I set out to create a film that might leave audiences with much to ponder and hopefully not only entertain but speak to them in a way that would be personal and human,” he says.

Ford accomplishes this task with his Nocturnal Animals. And in so doing, he elevates the public awareness of the novel Tony and Susan, and its author Austin Wright. One hopes that awareness lasts. ©