Director: Tom Ford
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Fashion designer Tom Ford would not seem like the obvious candidate for a prestigious movie career, but his debut film A Single Man was just the right blend of overwrought ambigu-drama and stunning aestehtic that he caught the eye of the Hollywood elite. Now, 7 years later, we’re getting his sophomore feature, the thriller Nocturnal Animals. This is the most important movie of his career, the one that defines the direction of his narrative and aesthetic development to see if he can actually sustain a directorial career. Let’s see how that went.
So far so good.
The plot: Grotesquely rich visual artist Susan (Amy Adams) lives in Los Angeles with her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) one of those moneyed types in suits who has a job so above the scope of day-to-day labor that you’re not actually sure what it is that he does. Also his named is f**king Hutton, so who needs more description than that.
Susan is reaching a personal crossroads, doubting every choice that she’s made in her life when her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her the manuscript of his new novel, which she reads over the course of one sleepless weekend while F**king Hutton is on a “business trip” with some slinky model.
In the novel, which contains some disturbing parallels to her own life, West Texas father Tony Hastings (also Jake Gyllenhaal) works with local policeman Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to track down the man (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who murdered his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) on the lonely highway one night. He attempts to overcome his own lack of strength to bring justice back into the world.
And take lots of showers.
Basically, Nocturnal Animals is a Western disguised as a prestige drama, which is actually pretty nifty. Did it need three layers of narrative to achieve this (her reading of the novel is also intercut with flashbacks of their life together)? Absolutely not. Does Amy Adams need to be involved? Well, definitely not as much as she is, but she’s a gorgeous canvas for Tom Ford’s most dazzling aesthetic, so we’ll let it slide. It’s a deliriously messy structure, but the story at its core is strong enough to survive the worst lashings of narrative incompetence.
First, let’s take a closer look at that core story, the Western thriller novel, also titled “Nocturnal Animals.” It’s definitely a narrative that would have made a decent film on its own, depicting the bond between two men who have nothing to lose and how their differing personalities chafe against a tense situation.
The roadside thriller sequence that opens this particular story is exquisitely terrifying, dominated by an unhinged Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who Deliverances it up without going too over-the-top. You can sense Tom Ford’s preference for grounded, character-driven drama in the way he nervously fumbles the film’s one true-blue action sequence: a car chase with no discernible geography that feels like two or three cars are just singular points barreling through the void with no particular relation to one another (seriously – I could have sworn three cars were involved, but only two come into play as the scene closes out) – but his work with the actors up-close and personal is phenomenal.
Jake Gyllenhaal is a marvel here, depicting his entire arc within a tremendously tactile performance that seamlessly differentiates his two characters through subtle physical cues.
And I don’t just mean shaving his beard, though that helps.
Gyllenhaal might be an offscreen character during the “present day,” but Nocturnal Animals is nevertheless all about him and he knows it. The only reason I’m not frustrated by the overused narrative-within-a-narrative conceit is that the film is explicitly taking a look at how we use fiction to cope with and redefine our reality. I really can’t overstate the subtlety of his performance in getting his message across.
But then you zoom out one tick more and land on Amy Adams. This section of the film is immensely frustrating, slashing up the flow of the novel with constant insert shots of her reading and looking sullen. Her performance is solid, but the script serves her extremely poorly. Her struggles add a frisson of social satire and four film-stealing, one-scene-only cameos from Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, and Jena Malone, but the tone is all over the place. These scenes are the mostly overtly comic, yet the atmosphere so clearly yearns to be dour and repressive.
This is also the area where Ford busts out his most self-consciously composed frames, using lush color blocking and glammed-up costume design for carousel of poster moment that are stunning but don’t add up to much. When two-thirds of the film works so well, it feels wrong to complain about the rest – especially when it’s as well-composed as this- but this stuff just kind of fails to work. It sputters and stalls the film over and over and over again, in its desperation to be noticed (as evidenced by the opening credits, which rest on a truly shocking image that adds nothing to the film, existing just for its own sake).
Nocturnal Animals is far from a failure, but its just barely an improvement on A Single Man. Ford’ll have to work a little harder than this if he really wants to prove himself. But maybe he doesn’t, and that’s fine too. Nocturnal Animals is good enough to just be itself.
TL;DR: Nocturnal Animals is a gorgeous thriller that's a tentative step forward for director Tom Ford.
Rating: 7/10Word Count: 941