Grade: A-

Nocturnal Animals, writer-director-designer Tom Ford’s second feature film, feels like the definition of the auteur theory. For everything we know about Ford, this could be what plays inside his head as he makes small talk at an L.A. party.

Here, there are two storylines, and both explore a character’s wrong choice when they come to a fork in the road, and their journey back to the point where they can make a new choice.

Amy Adams plays Susan, a visual artist who, with her younger, high roller husband Hutton (Armie Hammer), hemorrhages money and does a good job hiding it, but they aren’t able to relate to each other anymore. She treats him like he’s lesser and he shows no sign of a heart. They spar in the kitchen late at night; they use words as their weapons – and why not when Ford favours both turns of phrase and lines that sound like he plucked them from Hollywood’s Golden Age? Later, when Susan learns Hutton’s having an affair, Ford avoids the cliché and instead of giving Susan her breakdown scene, she registers the fact, and moves on. He need do nothing else but this to reveal the status of their marriage. Had Susan taken revenge, the story would miss its mark, as it’s more about the way she relates to her first husband, a writer named Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).

A package arrives for her late the same night Hutton leaves on business. In it is Edward’s newest manuscript, “Nocturnal Animals”. At one point Susan reveals this name is what he used to call her, and it’s only the first of many facts that link their lives together with the characters’ own in the manuscript itself. With “Nocturnal Animals” comes a long letter in which Edward explains he wanted to send her an advance copy, as she’s the reason he was able to complete the work – a fact that, as we learn more, must sting.

msAs Susan reads, the book plays out like a second movie. The protagonist, Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal), along with his wife (Isla Fischer, who obviously bears resemblance to Adams), and their daughter make their way through a dry Texas desert that the night seems to suffocate. Headlights appear behind them, and trouble grows and events occur until somehow, through a haze of passive aggression, miscommunication, and active aggression, men kidnap Tony’s wife and daughter, and leave him in the desert. Throughout, Tony continues to make the wrong choice. He’s not a fighter. Only Lt. Andes, played by Michael Shannon so well he makes the Clint Eastwood scowl he borrows his own, over the course of years is able to nurture the waking killer inside Tony and convince it to seek revenge, in and around the borders of the law.

Ford cuts back and forth from real life to the depicted manuscript in a way that’s jarring, but that might be the point. He cuts so bluntly that the storylines rub up against each other, and we’re forced to examine the storylines as a pair. He invites analysis. He reveals Edward and Susan at their best and their worst, and every piece of information we learn about their relationship – from its infancy, through to its harsh death – casts shadow after shadow on the events Edward writes in his manuscript. By revealing all this personal information about the leads, Ford gives us the tools we need to do what Susan tries to do: properly deconstruct the book.

Nocturnal Animals fires on every cylinder. The cinematography, score, production design, and of course costume design are on point.

It features career best work from Jake Gyllenhaal, who, despite his bulky frame, plays a convincingly sensitive (or weak, depending on which character you ask in the film) artist and victim of assault. Amy Adams puts in a better performance here than in Arrival (for which she received a Golden Globe nomination for best actress). Michael Shannon continues to pick the right projects, and in them the right roles. He consistently fills the void that Philip Seymour Hoffman previously occupied – meaning no one makes a better supporting role. In minor supporting roles, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, and Jenna Malone work to make their characters memorable. Malone’s character reminds me of her role in another auteur-vision film this year, The Neon Demon, which itself is not unlike Nocturnal Animals, as both feature exemplary character-driven storylines stitched with surrealistic images, and with a lot to unpack if you’re willing to do the work.

See this in a theatre now. Don’t be the last one talking about it.

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