Director: Tom Ford
Stars: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon
Have you ever found yourself at 8 in the evening on a Sunday, feeling like you want to watch a movie before calling it quits on the weekend, but finding yourself torn between the pulpy Texan noir of Cold In July and the weepy melodrama of, say, The Hours? And you haven’t got the time or durability for both? Well fear not, there’s now an answer to your problem in the form of Tom Ford’s frustrating and tonally chaotic Nocturnal Animals.
Amy Adams plays Susan, a wealthy but despondent artist, justifiably so as she’s well aware that her husband (an almost invisible Armie Hammer) is cheating on her. Struggling to contend with her first world problems (paper cuts!), Susan finds that her ex-husband Tony of 19 years ago (really?) has sent her the manuscript of a book he has written. A book dedicated to her. Unable to sleep, Susan starts to read.
Thus begins the film’s concurrent, trashier narrative in which Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal; who also plays Tony) and his wife and daughter take a fateful night drive through West Texas, where they are harassed on the road by a bunch of howling rednecks led, improbably, by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Susan has a physical reaction to the material. She is disgusted by it… but unable to put it down for long. Thus we chop and change between the two narratives, which in itself is playful at first. It feels as though Ford is asking us to recognise how invested we get in fiction, even as we acknowledge that his hyper-melodramatic framing device is just as trumped-up as it’s meaty and violent middle.
Yet the intensity of the tonal dissonance that arises becomes increasingly difficult to swallow. Edward and his family’s encounter with Taylor-Johnson’s posse is expertly realised and the stuff of genuine nightmares. Bad decisions and relatable cowardice get stirred in a melting pot and you can understand why Susan is loath to turn away. Yet the initial power of the scenario quickly dampens, the immediacy of it also crushed by Ford’s necessary jumps back to ‘reality’ where we are presented an entirely different film; an Oscar-baiting existential lip-quiverer in which Adams is left with little more to do than pout.
The downbeat weariness of Susan’s life is broken up somewhat mercifully by a third narrative strand as we are afforded flashbacks to her earlier life with Tony. They make for an eminently likeable tragic couple, but this strand only magnifies the messiness of Ford’s film. As in The Accountant – this autumn’s other pleasingly untidy thriller – one gets to feel in the midst of something with real potential that’s struggling not to tie itself in knots.
Thank the movie gods, then, for Michael Shannon, who turns up midway through within the West Texas narrative and absolutely destroys everyone. Shannon is always good, even when he’s in bad films, and here he’s especially valuable, playing unhinged and flat-out-suicidal law man Bobby Andes with a kind of rigid self-awareness that the rest of the pulpier fiction could really have benefited from. Whether it’s enough for a Best Supporting Actor nod remains to be seen, but he injects Nocturnal Animals with the same kind of unpredictable joy he brought to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
Ford shoots the differing narratives as dictated by their moods, but somehow manages to conjure the ghost of David Lynch’s Lost Highway in both. With its nighttime deserts and grimy cabins, it’s easy to see how the ‘book’ narrative could fit this seedy, dangerous aesthetic, but Susan’s disaffected life outside of the novel has it’s share too. Her home has the sparse, sterile feel of Fred and Reneé Madison’s place. At times other Lynch works feel like touchstones also. Wild At Heart and Mulholland Drive are both conjured to lesser degrees. A shot here, a shot there. His influence feels pronounced.
Unfortunately, Nocturnal Animals pivots on two acts of revenge, one violent, one uncharacteristically cold and calculated. In order to arrange for this, Ford’s film, adapted from a novel by Austin Wright, is compelled to leave the audience in a place of nagging, gaping frustration. The final scene here will have couples talking on their way out of the cinema, but it’s inevitability is dialled in early, not least while Susan and a co-worker admire a domineering piece of art in the lobby of their building. Nocturnal Animals makes no secret of it; revenge is the order of the day.
Ford, a fashion designer more often than a filmmaker, has an eye for the beautiful as evidenced in his previous film, the sweepingly sensitive A Single Man, and Nocturnal Animals constantly looks the business, no matter what style it’s trying to evoke. On an aesthetic level, everything here is exactly where it needs to be. A Single Man rightly afforded him a reputation among actors also, so he’s been able to cast as he likes. Adams is good in a rather thankless role, Gyllenhaal continues to impress as he has over the past few years especially, and there’s Shannon of course. A giant of his generation. Even Taylor-Johnson is effective, even if his psychopath Ray Marcus is more crushingly irritating than punishingly scary.
But when you put it all together it just doesn’t gel. The tonal seasickness is one thing, but coupled with a finale that’s designed to irk and you’ve got a film that’s by turns compelling, frustrating, cheap, cheerless and potentially pointless. It manages to victimise not just it’s characters… but it’s audience as well. It’s a compelling watch, that I can’t deny, but it’s such a scattershot and confounding experience that I’m hard pressed to fully recommend it. See it to join in the conversation, but be warned that what you’re getting yourself into is a murky, occasionally misogynistic mire of beautifully ugly indulgence.
They probably won’t be putting that on the poster.