(SPOILERS) I’d heard Marmite things about Tom Ford’s sophomore effort (I’ve yet to catch his debut), but they were enough to make me mildly intrigued. Unfortunately, I ended up veering towards the “I hate” polarity. Nocturnal Animals is as immaculately shot as you’d expect from a fashion designer with a meticulously unbuttoned shirt, but its self-conscious structure – almost that of a poseur – never becomes fluid in Ford’s liberal adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel, such that even its significantly stronger aspect – the film within the film (or novel within the film) – is diminished by the dour stodge that surrounds it.
I read a comment suggesting Nocturnal Animals’ “framing” material was like The Neon Demon if it had nothing remotely interesting going on beneath its shiny surface. There’s definitely something to that. Ford has sketched a portrait of shallow, superficial super-rich dining out on their ever-so-empty artistic elitism (the picture kicks off with an exhibit of gyrating obese nude women, as if someone had dragged Peter Greenaway down the discotheque and then summarily locked him in an art gallery with a selection of variable frame rates).
Amy Adams (she’s okay; I mean she’s never not good, but she has nowt to chew on here) is Susan Morrow, the gallery owner who has eschewed any personal creative aspirations and finished it with her sensitive/weak – genuinely creative – first husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) after his failed to come to anything and she met bland superstud Hutton (Armie Hammer). But, when she receives a manuscript from Edward, dedicated to her, she discovers a tale she can’t put down, and as apparently distinctive as the characters and setting are, she recognises within a hard-hitting allegory for her own severed relationship.
It sounds like there’s a decent kernel here, but there’s nothing about Susan’s story to engage the viewer; it’s impossible to feel much empathy for her plight, her (new) hubby having an affair while her frivolous friends (Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough, of whom we see far too little) advise her “Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world” as she opines “Do you ever feel your life has turned into something you never intended?” We’re treated – asked to endure, more like – flashbacks to her relationship with Edward that entirely fail to make either more interesting or reinforce the idea that there was something to invest in here in the first place.
So instead, the raw meat of the movie derives from Edward’s novel, Nocturnal Animals, Ford seguing back and forth from in the most indelicate manner. It’s a pretty big clue anyway that Susan reads the novel’s protagonist Tony Hastings with Edward in mind (so he’s also played by Gyllenhaal), a man who loses his wife and daughter to a trio of murderous redneck rapists on a deserted Texas road. What befalls them both is as crudely devised as any manipulative shocker – the build-up to events is horribly, expertly sustained – so Tony, tortured by his own – yes – weakness is naturally out for revenge, abetted by cancerous cop Michael Shannon, yet Ford makes this tale grimly compelling even as Aaron Taylor-Johnson appears to have studied at the foot of Straw Dogs and Deliverance for his unapologetic psychopath.
Ford is such a glacially controlled director that you almost forget to double take at some of the dialogue he attempts to get away with (as screenwriter). At a crucial moment, we discover that Susan not only left her first hubby, she had an abortion to boot, thanks to her leaving the clinic and delivering the line “I just don’t think I’m ever going to be able to look at Edward again after what I did to his child” to a consoling Hutton. Guess who’s standing in front of their rain-lashed car looking entirely bereft, right on cue? Just who’s writing the pulp novel here? Certainly, Sheffield is, with lines like “It’s fun to kill people”.
At other points, Susan is beset by dark visions of her haunting read, as Taylor-Johnson somewhat daftly leaps into frame on a colleague’s baby monitor app as if Ford’s decided to go all out for cheap jump-scare tactics. I was going to suggest he’s trying for a Polanski vibe with her unravelling psyche, but he doesn’t come close. He’s probably also angling for a Hitchcock flavour, certainly with Abel Korzeniowski’s sumptuous, elegant score.
Ford leaves us with Susan being stood up at a dinner date with Edward, letting the viewer surmise whether this was some elaborate revenge on his part – that he knew her emptiness would allow him to reel her in with the book – or rather that he decided he couldn’t face her. I’m not sure she should be too upset, since it probably wasn’t a great idea going looking to rekinde anything, not if Edward’s exorcising his demons through such an extreme elaboration of their experience. But if only we cared either way.
Taylor-Johnson was ladled a Golden Globe for his backwoods pains, while Shannon mustered on Oscar nomination. That latter’s certainly the most watchable part of Nocturnal Animals, enjoying a sympathetic role for a change and eschewing the over-familiar bug-eyed loon shtick. But as potent as Edward’s story is, it can only feel diminished as a tool of revenge/catharsis (complete with ending so absurdly nihilistic, only Nordberg in The Naked Gun could have outdone poor Tony). Ford isn’t so much delivering a slippery narrative conceit as a clunky one, since at least two-thirds of his devices are stillborn, and the one that isn’t is really little more than spruced-up western-noir horror.
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