Nocturnal Animals – review from Lee Adams
A film about a woman reading a book shouldn’t be as gripping as Nocturnal Animals, but somehow sophomore director Tom Ford pulls it off – until the finale. Ford previously made a living designing fancy togs for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, and as you’d expect from a film by a former fashion designer, his second feature is dressed to kill. It is artfully composed, beautifully shot, crisply edited, sleekly designed, evocatively scored, and benefits from three superb performances by Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon. And yet for all its expertise, Nocturnal Animals is flawed conceptually, leaving the audience with such a shrug of an ending that it’s hard to grasp why we’re supposed to care about the preceding two hours.
Nocturnal Animals is frequently billed as a Neo Noir, which is a broad and subjective term at the best of times. Ford enjoys himself playing with familiar neo noir tropes, both reinvigorating them with his muscular direction while lightly poking fun at the sub genre. Ultimately though, the story has more in common with 45 Years than Chinatown or Blade Runner, which may leave viewers feeling a little wrong-footed.
Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow, a wealthy gallery curator stuck in a loveless marriage with her hunky yet absent second husband Hutton (Armie Hammer, in a nothing role). She’s deeply unhappy with her life, and her dissatisfaction deepens with the arrival of an unpublished manuscript from her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she hasn’t seen in almost twenty years.
The cover note says that Edward has used their relationship as inspiration for the novel. Seems she shrugged him off in the past for the high life Hutton could afford her, and darker secrets are waiting to be revealed. The book tells the story of Tony (Gyllenhaal again) and his wife and daughter, who are waylaid by a carload of drunken rednecks one night on a lonely Texas back road. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well. Tony narrowly escapes with his life and a gruff local detective, Bobby Andes (Shannon), picks up the case.
The narrative is split into three parts. There’s Susan lounging around in her functionalist LA fortress reading the book, troubled by the parallels it draws with her betrayal of Edward; flashbacks to her relationship with the aspiring writer; and a film-within-a-film, depicting the novel itself.
The third part is by far the most exciting aspect of Nocturnal Animals. Come the end, it is also the most disappointing. Ford has such a strong grip of this story thread that at first it’s easy to forget this is a very hackneyed plot, and that in itself leads to several interesting wrinkles. His assured direction puts us right there alongside Tony and his family as they are attacked by the three low-lifes, and it’s terrifying. It’s pretty obvious that the fate of Tony’s family is sealed the moment it becomes clear that the car in front is populated by drunken rednecks, and once their tragedy is played out, Tony’s eventual revenge won’t come as any surprise. Yet in the telling, it’s fresh and utterly frightening.
Ford has some interesting things to say here about how we become the casting director of any book that we read. It makes perfect sense that in her imagination, Susan casts her former husband in the role of Tony. It also makes sense that Tony’s wife looks a lot like her, and his daughter very similar to her own.
Slyly we’re lead to believe that this book is Edward’s masterpiece and it has a profound effect on Susan, although when taking a step back one realises it’s a pretty bog standard slice of salacious pulp fiction. Perhaps Susan’s guilt about how she treated Edward in the past makes her imbue the story with more weight and meaning than it would have to the next reader?
Ford also seems to be poking fun at how even the most intelligent people can resort to stereotypes. Because it’s set in Texas, of course the guys Tony’s family runs into on the road are drunken redneck creeps, and because it’s Texas of course the detective is a grizzled chain-smoker with a stetson and a million-mile stare.
There’s lots to think about on a meta level in this part of the film, but once we switch back to Susan for the expected third act twist, the movie completely fizzles out. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that there isn’t a twist, and barely a third act either.
I haven’t read the source material, Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan, but I suspect the payoff may have more impact in the book because we might have more access to Susan’s inner thoughts than in the movie. Instead we’re left to figure out the parallels between the fictional character’s plight and Susan’s relationship with Edward, but can only infer why it has such a profound effect on her state of mind.
Somebody reading something is a very literary device, and Ford never successfully reconciles the huge contrast between Susan’s story and Tony’s story. Her part of the film is so passive and un-cinematic that it borders on inert, while Tony’s ordeal is cinematic to the point of throwing the whole movie off balance. The conclusion is a let down because it dawns on us that Nocturnal Animals isn’t Noir at all, it’s a drama about a middle-aged woman coming to terms with her past mistakes. That would be OK, but it comes as a bit of a disappointment that all the gripping fun stuff of Edward’s book is incidental to the “real” events of the film. It ends up feeling like the whole film-within-a-film section was a complete waste of time.
That’s a real shame, because Nocturnal Animals is powerful work from almost everyone involved. It has been a good couple of years for Amy Adams, although she has a pretty thankless role here. All she’s required to do is sit around reading, occasionally looking shocked or alarmed. Sometimes she’ll have a bath or look out of the window. That said she does plenty with her eyes, revealing sorrow, shame, and regret over the path she chose, and I wouldn’t be surprised if her name was in the running come Oscar time.
Gyllenhaal’s dual role is a little more theatrical, but he is as strong as you would expect. He naturally looks like a guy who doesn’t see much daylight, hence his affinity for darker roles, from his precocious breakout role in Donnie Darko through Zodiac to Nightcrawler.
Shannon is the highlight. He’s one of those actors you’d like to see in every movie, and he’s having plenty of fun here playing a walking cliché. The film lights up every time he’s on screen, and he tackles the role with typical intensity, giving the movie most of its heart, menace and humour.
The only real bum note cast-wise is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ray, the lead redneck creep. He’s a bit too good-looking to convincingly pull off this character, and seems rather self-conscious in a distractingly showy role. It doesn’t help that he’s made up to look like Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona.
Nocturnal Animals is a character study overwhelmingly distracted by the noirish side-show of it’s film-within-a-film, borrowing liberally from the Blood Simple/No Country For Old Men playbook along the way. In the hands of Tom Ford, it’s stylish, gritty and sexy, but turns out to be dressed up with no place to go. One thing’s for certain, it’ll give you plenty to thrash out over post-screening beers.