Fashion designer Tom Ford’s second film, Nocturnal Animals, is fine.
It is a semi-convincing gothic about modern America — urban but fatally tied to a rural past, prosperous but insecure, intellectual but campy and incredibly violent. It uses the grotesquery of vintage Southern gothic literature, remixed with Sex and the City platitudes about love and ambition, to make a weird, hyper-specific portrait of what Amy Adams’ character Susan refers to as a culture of “all junk.”
(Here’s your SPOILER warning.)
It is also, unfortunately, full of nauseating aesthetic choices such as the totally superfluous recurring image of a raped and murdered woman’s naked butt and legs arranged artfully on a red velvet sofa. (The sofa is in a pit next to an abandoned mobile home in the middle of rural Texas, where one generally keeps very expensive furniture.) This does not make the movie garbage, but it does remind me that it might behoove Hollywood to start letting women direct movies at some kind of substantial proportion.
It is not of crucial importance to me that you see it, unless you don’t currently believe that Jake Gyllenhaal is the best actor alive. In that case, you must.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays four characters in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (technically he plays two, but each of them goes through changes so substantial it might as well be four. He’s very impressive!). Here they are:
TONY, A QUINTESSENTIAL DAD
The first time we see Jake Gyllenhaal in Nocturnal Animals he’s a Clark Griswold-inspired dad in flannel, driving through rural Texas with his wife and teenage daughter, opining about the open road. Tony’s a good-guy, middle class patriarch, challenged minutes later to defend his family from a band of violent psychopaths and failing at every turn. It’s not an original set-up — a physically capable but slow-on-his-feet dude drops the ball and is tortured for his crimes against masculinity in just about every modernist novel you can pick up, and at least half-a-dozen mainstream films per year. Regardless, Gyllenhaal does it exceptionally well. I don’t like to give people too much credit for doing their jobs, particularly when they get paid a bazillion dollars to do it, but Jake Gyllenhaal is great.
The whole time Tony is on screen it seems like his body might just collapse and sink into the ground at any moment. There are tiny weights on the ends of Jake Gyllenhaal’s limbs and beard hairs and ill-fitting corduroy pants, and you can feel that every time he lifts an arm to try to do something — wave at a car, open a door, wipe a ton of blood off his face — it’s the hardest thing he’s ever had to do. This is a cozy dad in plaid who just wants to lecture his teen daughter about being glued to her iPhone; why would he ever expect to have to fight for her life? He talks like someone has a hand around his throat the entire time.
TONY, A SHELL OF A HUMAN
Shortly after this incident, Jake Gyllenhaal cries in the shower. Then he shaves off his beard and becomes a totally different incarnation of the Bereaved Clark Griswold Character — this one hell-bent on revenge and extremely pale. It would be easy to play this character (Tony #2) as a dude willing to do anything to avenge his wife and child; a man who so betrayed his masculinity that he then decided to go out and become a fit, violent freak. Tony #2 does become fit, and he does become violent, but you can also tell from the 9,987 flinches that follow even the slightest reference to violence that he hates it. Tony #2 has basically no emotion left in his body but fear.
Tony #2 is supposed to be a man with nothing left to lose, and Jake Gyllenhaal plays him like a man who has realized he has nothing left to lose — and responded by becoming both furious and very desirous of a nap. It makes so much sense, yet I never would have thought of it. This is why Jake Gyllenhaal is the best actor alive and I’m just a blogger and mediocre seamstress.
YOUNG EDWARD, A CUTE BOYFRIEND
The third Jake Gyllenhaal character in Nocturnal Animals is Edward Sheffield, the sweet young man who will eventually become the disturbed adult novelist who wrote the book that Tony appears in. He is what you would imagine Jake Gyllenhaal to be if Taylor Swift had gotten to write him instead of just date him for a couple of months. He has a faint Texas accent and wears shearling jackets. He says things like “I believe in you” and “I love you” to Amy Adams’ character, and uses Jake Gyllenhaal’s rarely-seen romantic comedy face, which certainly helps. He is very sweet, if not the most interesting. He wants to be a novelist but Susan doesn’t think he is very good. (It rankles him, but he is polite about it.)
The curious thing about Young Edward is that Jake Gyllenhaal plays him as the most perfect person who ever lived — not a wrong word, not a hair out of place, not a smile that couldn’t melt an ice cap. He is the antithesis of sinister. It’s the best way I can think of to play a handsome man that you want people to inherently distrust, even if for no reason they can identify themselves.
OLD EDWARD, A PSYCHO
The fourth Jake Gyllenhaal in Nocturnal Animals is only seen through email and one note written with a typewriter (and apparently signed with a personalized stamp). You only really know Old Edward by taking Young Edward, the two characters he wrote (Tony #1 and Tony #2), and extrapolating from there. Fortunately that is more than enough to go on. Even without seeing Old Edward we know that he is reluctant to carry out violence of any kind, that he secretly finds this whole story pretty sexy even though he won’t say it, and that he will not find a way to move on even after he’s done what he set out to do. It’s terrifying, considering the “crime” committed against him in real life is nowhere near as abhorrent as the ones that happen in his book.
I’m a little afraid of Old Edward, who really is “the man behind the curtain” throughout the whole movie, and I’m a little afraid of Jake Gyllenhaal because it’s crazy how good you have to be at acting to make it feel like there is a fourth character where there isn’t one.
Jake Gyllenhaal is very weird, which may be part of the reason we don’t consider him a classic Hollywood movie star. (That, and the fact that trolls everywhere simply cannot stop saying, “Oh, you mean the Prince of Persia guy?”) He’s no George Clooney. He was a weirdo child star and now he’s a weirdo adult who said his favorite form of PDA is sponge baths.
He’s also no Leonardo DiCaprio, who — though a strange mix of cargo short-wearing bro and avid environmentalist — is also a traditional Hollywood leading man whose every appearance on a screen outright begs you to notice how talented and handsome and deserving of praise he is. He has a face that asks, “Aren’t I good boy?” Jake Gyllenhaal is a traditional leading man in that he is white and straight and generally attractive, unless he’s trying hard not to be, but his face does not ask, “Aren’t I good boy?” Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t really have a face, so much as he has a piece of skin on top of his skull that he can contort at will in order to become four distinctly different people in the span of two hours.
If Nightcrawler, or Prisoners, or Brokeback Mountain, or Zodiac, or Jarhead, or End of Watch or Donnie freaking Darko didn’t sell you (Come on, angsty teens! Stick up for your one-time idol!), please watch Nocturnal Animals. Jake Gyllenhaal is the finest actor we have, and I’m tired of having to say so. Let’s all just agree on one thing, this one time.