Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer
Director: Tom Ford
Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Tom Ford's sophomore feature, Nocturnal Animals, opens with a galvanizing series of images straight out of fashion hell week; with garishly dressed overweight women shaking in hyper stylized slow-motion, waving American flags, clutching sparkler fireworks, and making seductive glances at the camera. This opening has a David Lynch-like quality; a simultaneously grotesque and humorous parade of undulating, unattractive bodies which speaks to the inherent contradictions within the art and fashion world. If only Ford had found a way to merge the satirical with the surreal in a way which felt germane to the narrative, then Nocturnal Animals could have been a playful deconstruction of why and how we respond to storytelling. However, the film lacks the lurid kinkiness Lynch (or even someone like Brian DePalma) could have brought to this kind of material. Instead, it often plays like an art installation piece about beautiful people suffering beautifully.
Since Ford is a famous fashion designer, this perfected meticulousness makes sense, with his only other feature, 2009's A Single Man, being an immaculately composed study in privileged male ennui. Glossy and gorgeously shot with a committed lead performance from Colin Firth, that film was an impressive technical achievement but somehow felt vacuous; almost as if Ford was too much in love with his own version of fetishistic artiness.
Nocturnal Animals, on the other hand, seems to play into Ford's strengths in that its very plot structure is a post-modern construct which calls into question the audience's response. However, the problems here arise from the fact that, like fellow visual stylist Nicholas Windig Refn, Ford doesn't know how to double-down on the more exaggerated aspects of the genre elements; allowing his picture to devolve into self-indulgent ponderousness when it should be kicking up the neo-noir thrills and criss-crossing narrative threads.
Amy Adams plays Susan, a highly successful Los Angeles gallery owner who seems to have it all; an attention-grabbing art installation (those jiggling bodies glimpsed in the film's opening), a dashing husband (Armie Hammer), and an uber-modern home with all the sleek fixings only the rich and famous can attain. It doesn't take long for us to realize, though, that this is all smoke and mirrors, as Susan reveals she hates what she does for a living and that her husband has made some dubious business deals. The stress of an affluent ice queen is compounded when a mysterious package arrives one day containing a novel written by her ex-husband Edward; a novel, of course, titled "Nocturnal Animals", which details his deep-seated pain over the end of their relationship.
As Susan begins turning the pages in rapt fascination, the film cuts to the mini-movie within the novel; a grisly slice of pulp fiction following Tony (Jake Gyllenhal) traveling to Texas with his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter, India (Ellie Bamer). A gang of violent men begin terrorizing them on a dark two-lane highway, with the gang's leader, Ray (a snarling Aaron Taylor-Johnson) kidnapping wife and child while leaving Tony bloodied and beaten. Ford's film goes back and forth between Susan's sterile domesticated life and the harsh world of her ex-husband's book, often with obvious symbolic imagery and cross-dissolves, and there are also additional flashbacks weaved in illustrating Susan and Edward's younger years. Structurally, there's a parallel to be made between Susan and us, the audience, in that our level of investment with clearly fictional characters in a novel obviously written as a blood-soaked confessional of heartbreak, is suspect. Why should we care about the devastating events depicted in Edward's novel if it's all an allegory for his failed marriage? Conversely, Susan's visceral response to what she's reading has little to do with the strength of the literary prose (for all intents and purposes, the book seems like a bargain bin pulp paperback), but is completely self-involved because she understands the misery she's caused her former lover and cannot undo the damage.
Nocturnal Animals, for all it's elegant cinematography and perfectly composed images of gorgeous people suffering, is a film without a soul; a hollow post-modern exercise in which our investment in the characters is predicated on artificiality. If Ford had a sense of humor, this tactic could have worked as a baroque comedy, but there are only hints of satire here; such as Jena Malone showing up as a self-involved fashion diva, Michael Shannon's enjoyably macabre turn as a Texas lawman, and the aforementioned cartoonish villainy of Taylor-Johnson's rouge hick. Had Ford fully embraced the sillier aspects of the overlapping narratives, Nocturnal Animals could have been a wild revenge noir with tangential elements of fashion elite parody. As it stands, it's a film which wants to hammer home how cruel and callous we are to the ones we love, taking itself far too seriously in the process, and like that gloriously unhinged opening montage, ends up being one big tease.