As a director, Tom Ford is the real deal -- his debut feature, A Single Man, was one of the greatest queer films ever made -- and this follow-up does not disappoint: Nocturnal Animals, a luxurious adult fairy tale of ennui and revenge, is one of the best films of the year, and one of the greatest revenge films of our time.
The overall weakness in the mixed-to-stunning reviews stem from some critics' inability to connect emotionally to the story (one critic, Adam Graham, says Ford "fails to connect the dots on an emotional level," Christopher Orr says it offers "Art without the heart"). Perhaps these critics missed that the heart here arrives unexpectedly -- just as it arrives for our main character -- at the end, and there is no doubt that for the enraptured viewer, the film captivates coldly & completely until the emotional body blow of the exquisite final scene.
The characters and their relationships here are stereotypical, and that is by design and befitting the dark fairy tale structure and atmosphere. Adams -- in an Enchanted-level performance of perfection, superior even to this year's turn in Arrival -- is an artist who has lost her soul in pursuit of material security and outward beauty; Gyllenhaal is the ex-boyfriend struggling romantic/writer who unexpectedly sends her his new manuscript, "Nocturnal Animals." We see backstory: their first date connection was real, their love was intense, their breakup because of Adams's fear of poverty, and the story we find ourselves in -- which in fact announces itself to us -- is of Gyllenhaal's beautiful, delicate revenge. There are standout performances, beyond the main two, from Golden Globe winner Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a Texas hooligan and Laura Linney in a single, standout scene as Adams's leonine-bourgeois monster-mother figure. The themes here are also out of a lost Grimm fairy tale -- beauty and ugliness, strength and weakness, getting what we wish for -- and are explored with artistry and genuine cinematic vision. Ford, translating his great eye for fashion successfully into filmic language, again, skillfully hypnotizes from the start, and the deeper feelings and meanings he evokes are wordless, as fashion is and great cinema tends to be.
They do it all without guns, with mere cajoling, as Gyllenhaal and his family go-along, trying to avoid an outright confrontation, and hoping, as we all do, for the best. One surface lesson here -- that good faith in fellow humans, in societal norms, can be dangerously misplaced as we sleepwalk to our doom -- haunts me still in the context of current events.
See this haunting film in theaters. It is a surreal near-masterpiece for our twilight zone times.
****1/2 Four and a half Stars out of Five.