In Nocturnal Animals, the devil is in the refined details. Tom Ford’s sophomore directing effort (in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles; additional cities Nov. 23 and opens nationwide Dec. 9), his follow-up to 2009’s A Single Man, infuses a Hitchcockian thriller with modern-day opulence, telling a story of death and heartbreak.
Susan (Amy Adams) is a wealthy (if miserable) married art gallery owner living a carefully curated life in L.A. who receives a manuscript written by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). She — and the story — soon disappear inside the book’s plot, in which a fictional family experiences a brutal carjacking on the backroads of Texas at the hands of a psychotic killer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
Adams shot her designer-clad scenes in Los Angeles, separately from the Texas carnage, with her character decked out in Cartier, Louis Vuitton and Chanel.
She arrived on the set after the carjacking sequence had been shot, “and you got the sense that the crew had witnessed something. It seemed like they were survivors,” says Adams, today wearing a leather pencil skirt designed by her director, and sandwiched between Gyllenhaal and an immaculately dressed Ford.
Gyllenhaal takes on dual roles, both playing Susan’s ex-husband in flashbacks and Tony, the father in Edward’s novel, who numbly fails to protect his wife and daughter when faced with incredible violence (to the disgust of a laconic Texas ranger, played by Michael Shannon).
The actor says he knew he had to leave the primal instincts to Taylor-Johnson, and compensated on the set for his character’s restraint by jogging endlessly. “I had just done a number of roles where I was super-physical. I played a boxer (in Southpaw). I needed to shed that, just psychologically,” Gyllenhaal says. “So I ran a lot.”
As the director volleys between his dark revenge tale and Susan’s glossy present day, it’s fascinating to see Ford — who helms a fashion empire beloved by celebrities and magazine editors — play with the empty effects of materialism in Adams’ art world.
He’s aware of the irony. “I was extremely insecure, and so I became obsessed with materialism,” says the writer/director, who was born in Austin. “Our culture teaches us that happiness is a state: Once you achieve it, you’re there. And you achieve it by buying that, having this, going there, marrying this person, and then you’re happy. And that’s actually not true.”
Ford says his awakening came a decade ago as he battled a drinking problem. “I was lucky enough to experience achieving the success, the money, the fame, the clothes, the things, the cars, the houses,” he says. “And I realized, ‘What is this about?’ I’d lost all sense of spirituality.”
Ford has since has found his own sense of balance.
“I’ve come to terms with the fact that we are material creatures,” he says. “We live in a world where beauty can bring you pleasure. And things feel nice. But you have to keep it in perspective.”
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