Silver Screen: Nocturnal Animals ***1/2
Nocturnal Animals, fashion designer Tom Ford’s followup to his Oscar-nominated debut A Single Man, is a fragmented, intermittently intense thriller that comments on the nature of story... kinda sorta, insomuch as it says anything. Ford’s rich, tightly controlled visuals— all straight lines and colorless sheen in one story, sunblasted yellows in another, and romantically night-lit in yet a third— dominate, as though the characters and even the story itself are compelled to follow the trajectories of their aesthetic.
Ultimately the film begs the question: Does it lose sense of its own substance, or was there never any there to begin with?
Nocturnal Animals, based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, is a story within a story set against the backdrop of a flashback.
In the most current timeline, art-gallery director Susan (Amy Adams) is emotionally bereft in a world of wealth. The latest exhibit she curated, a vapid installation in which naked, morbidly obese women repose amongst patriotic iconography, is well-received, but Susan seems to sense the emptiness in it. Meanwhile, her self-obsessed husband (Armie Hammer) is off philandering across different time zones in the name of business travel.
Susan’s world of cocktail parties with the bloodless rich evokes the same moneyed metropolitan vacuity of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, minus most of the deadpan humor. Back in her Pottery Barn Special Reserve-stocked house, she’s jolted out of her bourgeois reverie by the manuscript of a novel sent to her by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Story Number Two is the text of the novel itself, a bit of Texas noir nastiness you might expect from Sam Peckinpah or Jim Thompson or Joe Lansdale. It’s a violent revenge tale about a husband, Tony, who is waylaid by redneck thugs (led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) on a lonely desert highway. The homicidal hillbillies run Tony off the road, then kidnap his wife and daughter and leave him for dead. Eventually he finds his way to the aid of local cop Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), who begins a dogged investigation.
In Susan’s imagining of Edward’s novel, Edward himself is a stand-in for Tony (Gyllenhaal doing double duty), while the terrorized wife is an eerie approximation of Susan. In a canny bit of casting, Ford uses the remarkable physical similarities between star Adams and Isla Fisher, who plays Tony’s abducted wife. It would be possible not even to notice the difference between the two, but only to perceive some strange disconnect between them.
Why exactly Susan projects herself and her ex-husband into the text of the novel is explained during the course of several flashbacks to their courtship, which constitutes Story Number Three. Here a younger Susan, still caught between rebellion and comfort, defies her wealthy family (represented by Laura Linney, coiffed within an inch of her life) by marrying middle-class schlub Edward.
Nocturnal Animals’ trifold structure— along with Ford’s handsomely fussy compositions— is its greatest asset. Ford conjures meaning in the spaces between the three segments of his varyingly interrelated narratives. He doesn’t manipulate them capriciously; like every other aspect of the film, it’s so tightly controlled it makes the collar of your shirt feel tight.
But while Nocturnal Animals pokes at some ideas— about the loose connection between fact and fiction, the way we project ourselves into narratives and project narratives onto our lives, about violent revenge both physical and emotional— does it ever really say anything? Sometimes a vague ending conveys a multitude of possibilities. Other times it’s just an abdication of decision, an aversion to the kind of narrative consequence that might force the creator to stake some kind of moral or ideological claim.
Separated from the other two storylines, none of the plotlines are especially interesting. Rich middle-aged woman laments selling out? Naïve young couple struggle when love conflicts with money? Revenge thriller predicated on the graphic rape and murder of two women? The first two are prosaic, and the latter would be considered actively loathsome if it wasn’t situated among the trappings of Capital-A Art.
The opening-credit sequence provides some inadvertent insight. Nocturnal Animals begins with a selection from Susan’s gallery’s new exhibit, in which the aforementioned morbidly obese women, fully nude, dance and gyrate in slow motion while they wave sparklers in the air. It’s a bumbling, unsubtle critique of junk culture that lets the art patrons indulge in the worst kind of irony while they simultaneously hold themselves above it. That’s the same way Ford plays with the revenge story, which is artfully executed but brutally simplistic, a kind of sneering response to the Bechdel test. The very sort of thing that Nocturnal Animals would critique is also the only thing that runs blood through it.
The adaptation of the novel within the movie is flagrantly positioned to be the most compelling segment, an awful relief from the antiseptic artifice of Susan’s phony world. It’s not so much a credit to the luridness of the material, but the core trio of actors present. Taylor-Johnson, thoroughly unlikable in the Kick-ass movies, oozes alpha-trash menace in his first really impressive role, a part that might have gone to Ben Foster ten years ago. Gyllenhaal is at his most fanatically haunted. Both are outshone by character actor extraordinaire Shannon, a vengeful scarecrow lost in an outsized suit and bulbous white cowboy hat. I’d watch a dozen movies of his eccentric lawmen rounding up Lone Star State crooks.
It’s not a great endorsement of Nocturnal Animals to say that its most intriguing component is the least essential to its story and ideas. But those compelling characters are there, anyway, framed as if suited to be hung on a gallery wall. Ford ambitiously aims to plumb the depths here, but he can’t quite inhibit his obsession with the surface.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@RealBryanMiller.