There’s a moment in “Nocturnal Animals” where art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) stops in front of a massive canvas. The white painting is covered with dripping black letters that spell out “REVENGE.” Morrow can’t recall how the gallery got the work.
The explanation of the origin is not as important as the significance of the word. Revenge is the anchor that holds together a loosely tethered group of ideas and stories that make up “Nocturnal Animals.”
Central to this theme is the relationship between Morrow and her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). There was a brief marriage that ended, as Morrow describes it, in a very brutal manner.
It has been 19 years since they have seen each other, and Morrow is now married to a cheating husband (Armie Hammer). During one of her spouse’s “business trips,” she receives a manuscript for a book called “Nocturnal Animals” that Sheffield has written. Nocturnal animal is what Sheffield called his ex-wife because of her late-night habits.
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As Morrow reads the work, director/writer Tom Ford starts a second storyline that is the book brought to life. GyIlenhaal plays a husband whose wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) are kidnapped, raped and killed. The husband’s only hope of revenge for the brutal acts is a haggard Texas cop (Michael Shannon).
The revenge factor of the book is obvious as the husband and cop try to track down the trio of killers through the stark world of west Texas. Ford has created a Hitchcockian story from an initial assault that is as terrifying as any great horror movie to the final confrontation when there is no way of knowing whether revenge or sanity will be the deciding factor.
What makes the sequence so horrifying is that it unfolds with a growing tension that suggests unbelievable acts of violence without having to be overt with the actions. The tension builds with such an encompassing force that it is unforgettable – no matter how hard you will want to try.
More important is the revenge Sheffield is getting for the way Morrow treated him as shown in a third story line. Their marriage failed because she never had faith in his writing skills. But the mesmerizing manuscript shows her that she underestimated his skills while also creating within her a new passion for him.
Morrow sees the story as a way for Sheffield to exact some revenge for the way she treated him. Although the parallels are thin, Morrow becomes convinced that the brutality of the story is a result of the hatred the writer still has for her.
The final scene of the movie is very oblique in design and that may frustrate some. But Ford has set very fair rules as to what he thinks about creativity, obsession, over indulgence, affairs of the heart, affairs of the mind and, of course, the controlling power of revenge.
Ford sprinkles in some commentary about life and art using nudity to show the starkness of beauty and the beauty of starkness. He uses nudity in various ways, not as a sexual element, but as an exclamation point for pivotal moments in the story.
He can do this because Gyllenhaal is so compelling to watch as a wounded author and broken husband/father, and Adams can sell sadness with a simple look. Shannon turns in yet another brilliant performance as the one person who thinks revenge is overrated.
Ford shows through these three story lines that bump together that revenge is a dish best served through a commanding story and highly qualified actors.