Written by Matt Taylor
Opening his film with a montage of plus sized models dancing in the nude, it’s clear that Tom Ford wants to grab and keep your full attention with Nocturnal Animals. And why wouldn’t he? It’s been seven years since the fashion icon stepped into the director’s chair with the phenomenal A Single Man, and his highly anticipated follow-up features a cast of Hollywood A-listers, headlined by Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal. This is a film that should be great. So, why isn’t it?
Well, let’s start with the story. Nocturnal Animals unfolds in dual narratives, which never intersect but attempt to complement one another. In the first, Amy Adams stars as Susan, an art gallery owner in the midst of an existential crisis. She hates her work, longs to be more creative, and is aware that her second husband (Armie Hammer) is in the midst of an affair with a younger woman. One day, she receives an unusual package from her ex-husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal): the manuscript of his first novel, which he’s dedicated to her. The novel, which viewers see acted out on screen as Susan reads it, is a violent tale about a husband (also Gyllenhaal) who seeks bloody revenge against a trio of sadistic rednecks that have kidnap his wife and daughter. Susan is riveted by the novel, but also somewhat disturbed, as it has unusual parallels with the way her first marriage came to a close.
On paper, this plot sounds fascinating and, for at least thirty minutes, Ford manages to effectively pull you into these two unique worlds. The first story has a hypnotic quality to it, with Ford making the most of Amy Adams’ emotive eyes to convey her sense of unhappiness. The second story also kicks off strongly enough, with a very suspenseful, 17-minute car chase between Gyllenhaal’s character and his harassers. But both of these stories eventually develop problems. Gyllenhaal’s story never really comes together tonally; it’s filled with dark subject matter and brutal violence, but is played like a pulpy comedy by much of its cast. The stars are clearly having a ball with this material, but it’s hard for the audiences to have as much fun when they’re watching women getting tortured or sexually threatened by psychopaths. And while Adams story remains entertaining for a longer stretch of time, it eventually comes to a hugely anticlimactic ending, and contains some surprisingly mean-spirited jabs at LA lifestyles that come off as quasi-misogynistic.
The main reason these stories fall apart is because they never truly come together. The novel within the film is meant to mirror the collapse of Susan and Edward’s marriage, seen in flashbacks, but the connection is never all that convincing. The whole narrative relies on the audience both disliking Susan, and believing that she would be thoroughly riveted by the novel her ex-husband wrote. Neither notions are believable. Susan doesn’t seem like a mean-spirited person; just someone who made some mistakes in her past and has moved past them. But one trait the script does succeed in selling to the audience is that Susan is a woman of refined taste. Why would she be so impressed by what ultimately boils down to a Southern edition of Criminal Minds?
The cast of A-listers try their hardest to sell the material, and mostly succeed. Adams may have been slightly miscast (she’s still so likable, even when trying to play an ice-queen), but she remains an absorbing screen presence and carries the film. Michael Shannon also steals scenes as a foul-mouthed, cigarette chomping police officer in the novel-within-the-film. And, in what amounts to nothing more than glorified cameos, both Laura Linney and Jena Malone turn in fine work. Hell, even Aaron Taylor-Johnson delivers a solid performance. In fact, the only performance that didn’t work was Gyllenhaal’s, as he plays the ridiculous storyline far too seriously. His few scenes as Edward are much better performed, but we’ve seen him do work like it before.
Tom Ford is an undeniably talented filmmaker, and his ability to direct two very different sorts of stories calls for praise, even if they never truly meld together. The sets, costumes and cinematography are all stunning, and the score is perfect for a melodrama like this. But, after a seven-year wait, it’s a shame to see Ford hit a serious sophomore slump. Nocturnal Animals could, and should, have been far better.